Army contracting rebuilding workforce
September 16, 2010
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Sept. 16, 2010) -- The U.S. Army has changed hiring practices, emphasized recruiting and initiated training programs in order to meet the demand for contracting specialists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army Contracting Command and the Corps of Engineers have been tasked to rebuild a workforce -- which has experienced losses from Base Realignment and Closure -- needed to complete a massive workload.
"We've been working very vigorously over the last few years in trying to rebuild our contracting workforce both on the civilian side, and just as importantly, on the military side," said Jeffrey Parsons, executive director, ACC.
Skilled contracting specialists are a necessity in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially when a military build-up occurs, but a combination of civilians declining to work in a combat zone and a lack of high-quality applicants for those positions has left a smaller workforce with heavy responsibilities, he added.
"We're probably 70- to 80-percent staffed; we usually don't get above that point," said Kim Denver, director of contracting for the Corps of Engineers. "We are meeting the demand of the workload, but we're not exactly where we'd like to be."
The scarcity of skilled contracting specialists can be traced to the government's decision to downsize the federal workforce in the 1990s, which led to skill-set gaps and had adverse consequences when Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced, said Edward Harrington, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Procurement.
"Over the years of downsizing, the majority of those folks that left our service were mid- and senior-level, seasoned, experienced contracting professionals," Harrington said. "The last eight years...we've had a tremendous increase in workload."
Complicating the issue is BRAC, and now the task of rebuilding a skilled workforce has been stressed with the task of replacing skilled personnel. ACC and the Expeditionary Contracting Command are moving to Huntsville, Ala., next summer, and a contracting center is New Jersey is moving to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., at the same time.
"As in any move, there's a large challenge associated with that, especially moving out of the Washington, D.C., area because there are so many opportunities for people to go to other organizations," Parsons said.
The struggling economy has been a bittersweet boost for Army contracting because skilled workers that once applied their trade in the private industry are now being recruited to use those skills in the military.
"We have picked up quite a few individuals that have been buyers in the auto industry, or the steel industry, or the aluminum industry, that we've brought into contracting," Parsons said, adding the Army participates in job fairs and advertises heavily in cities like Detroit.
Advanced training and continued education are two benefits that come with working in Army contracting. As the military environment changes, Harrington said contracting specialists must adapt, and resources and funding has been set aside to provide employees with the opportunity to learn new skill sets.
"It's a lifelong learning experience along with a work experience," he said. "We support master's degrees completion, we support advanced training and advanced education for these folks because it's absolutely necessary, as part of the professional qualifications, to have that type of training."
Army contracting is invested in its internship program, which it looks at as a training regimen for future leaders in the field. Interns can come right out of college, provided they meet certain qualifications, and in the last three years more than 800 interns have been hired.
"It's a very critical program for us in order to establish that base because if I'm losing 500 people a year due to attrition, retirements and people moving around, ideally I would like to have a pool of people that are graduating out of that intern program to move into the positions that I will then have open throughout my organization," Parsons said.
Interns complete three levels of certification during the three-year program, receive on-the-job training in a contracting environment and are assigned a mentor, who will guide entry-level employees and help them develop essential skills.
"They have a six-week training period when the intern comes on board," Harrington said. "Along with the formal classroom training, they are initially exposed to the actual work environment every day."
The typical hiring process can take up to six months to complete, but the Army has given ACC and other contracting centers the ability to cut that time significantly. They can also make tentative offers to prospective employees while required paperwork is completed.
"We've used things like expedited hiring authority to bring over about 155 people in the last couple of years in the journeyman level, people that have had some experience," Parsons said, adding that finding applicants with experience can be difficult.
The Army recently established a website to help ACC in recruiting and hiring to attract qualified civilians to fill the ranks. Armyhire.com details the benefits of working as a contracting specialist, the locations an employee could work and the opportunities for college graduates up to current contracting professionals.
"We're using that website, quite frankly, to also advertise positions for our own workforce," Parsons said. "Within our enterprise what we're trying to encourage is movement to get different types of job experience."
Army contracting buys construction projects, items critical to operate installations and major weapon systems, all in direct or indirect support of the Soldier. Army contracting is an exciting career field, Parsons said.
"Our workers really have a sense of pride and fulfillment when they know they're in direct support of our warfighters, who are putting their lives at risk every day in theater," he added.