Acquisition shops inside government need workers too xia yuan

Government contractors talk up the talent fight all the time as their watch-item, but what of the teams that award the work?

One statistic brought up at a Professional Services Council-hosted event Tuesday certainly is ringing alarm bells across the public sector ecosystem even if the problem it highlights is not necessarily new.

Close to 7% of the federal government's acquisition workforce is under 30 years old, said Lesley Field, deputy administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget.

And other numbers aren't much better. More federal acquisition workers are over the age of 70 than under 25, and there are three times as many aged 60 and up as there are under 30, Field told PSC Federal Acquisition Conference attendees via a virtual connection.

Even Field conceded the 7% figure "is pretty alarming to be honest" amid ongoing efforts across agencies to put greater emphasis on training and development opportunities, including new credentialing and experiential learning programs.

It is an accepted fact across the government contracting industry that there are fewer people in government that are available to help run acquisitions. But that decline is taking place amid growth in the size of many contracts and what the acquisition organizations are responsible for.

Chris Bennethum, assistant commissioner of the General Services Administration's Assisted Acquisition Services organization, said in a subsequent discussion panel that his team hits capacity "earlier and earlier every year" in terms of the obligations they can handle.

Bennethum said in each of the last four-to-five years, the AAS group comprised of around 750 acquisition personnel has seen year-on-year growth of 20% in obligations.

AAS works with other federal agencies through the procurement and acquisition process including several large departments such as the Homeland Security Department.

What's being called the Great Resignation or Great Reshuffling is hard to measure specifically for the federal acquisition workforce, but Bennethum said he sees the impact "in terms of being able to take on more" contracting functions.

Peter Bonner, associate director for human resources solutions at the Office of Personnel Management, termed the current trend as more of a "reshuffle" with people moving across different agencies and offices.

"Some of the causes are around the latitude that the agencies have to determine what remote work, what hybrid work, what telework looks like," Bonner said.

More government contractors have looked to remote and hybrid work structures as a way to continue diversifying their talent pools beyond what is in an already tight market in the Greater Washington, D.C. region.

It's worth noting that the larger discussion of looking beyond the National Capital Region has taken place for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the past two years have only brought the issue more to the forefront.

Can that same concept also apply to the federal workforce?

Keep in mind that 85% of all federal employees are outside of Greater Washington, according to OPM figures, but it is true that the National Capital Region has by far the greatest concentration at 15 percent.

Bonner indicated that is high on OPM's agenda and particularly regarding potential talent in regions where applying for a federal job may not be necessarily the first thing that comes to mind.

"We are working with those colleges and universities around the country to do some of that development," Bonner said.

Bonner added they are also working with diversity-and-inclusion groups as part of that effort to create an education and development pathway on applying for a federal job and using the site effectively.

GSA's AAS organization has 12 regional offices and some international presence as well, Bennethum said, which tells him there are opportunities for people to work where they prefer.

The challenge and question he posed in saying that is largely the same one being discussed across industry: what is the needed balance between being in the office and allowing for remote work?

"Sometimes I need folks to be in front of each other, sometimes I need them to be in front of clients, sometimes I need them to be in front of industry," Bennethum said. "Do I demand that 100% of the time? No. But when it's needed, I think it's important. That's the challenge we're working through at this point. I still think it's a work in progress."