DoD bolsters acquisition workforce in face of budget pressures

Tuesday - 6/12/2012, 5:09pm EDT

Ruben Gomez, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The prospect of tighter budgets has prompted agencies to consider, if not begin, reducing their workforces. Even at the Defense Department, early retirements and buyouts of civilian workers and the planned downsizing of the uniformed force are becoming common place.

But at least in one segment of the workforce, DoD is learning from its past mistakes. The pressure to cut spending has not slowed the Pentagon's efforts to increase the size of its acquisition workforce.

In fact, the Defense services and agencies are in the process of adding 20,000 acquisition jobs, following a period of essentially no growth, Pentagon leaders told Federal News Radio as part its week-long special report, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer

Rene' Thomas-Rizzo

Payroll makes up the biggest piece of discretionary spending for agencies, so downsizing headcount is an effective way to trim budgets. But officials at DoD, the government's largest buyer, believe protecting the acquisition workforce from reductions is essential to helping the department use money efficiently and ultimately guarding its mission effectiveness.

"We really are focused on what the requirement is, what the demand signal is, for people to do the work, not a budget-based workforce-shaping process," said Rene' Thomas-Rizzo, acting director of human capital initiatives for the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. "To date…until we're told we're not going to execute programs, we're going to continue to work to grow our workforce to meet the demand signal to get the job done."

Workforce fund

DoD started increasing the size of its acquisition workforce in 2009, after Congress approved the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF), a $4.5 billion program designed to help the department rebuild the number and skills of its acquisition workers. The law requires the fund receive $1.18 billion in fiscal 2013 by a combination of appropriations and receipts or taxes from the military services and defense agencies, according to DoD budget documents.

The fund provides money for recruiting, hiring, retention and training, which is one area the Government Accountability Office has flagged for having deficiencies. And it has proven to be a boon for a number of defense components.

"We've used the DAWDF fund to reshape our workforce," said Tom Evans, chief of the Workforce Management Division in the Army's Acquisition and Support Center. "And that has helped us, especially in the contracting career field. We've [added] basically about 1,500 new contracting employees since the fund's been available to us."

Roy Wood

The Navy also has used the fund to increase the size of its acquisition workforce.

"We've hired probably 4,400 folks, and our original goal through fiscal 2015 was 6,922," said Thomas-Rizzo, who also is the Navy's director of acquisition career management.

While defense leaders have added thousands of acquisition professionals to DoD's payroll, they also have used DAWDF money to help new and existing employees improve their skills through training and education from the Defense Acquisition University (DAU).

DAWDF has provided resources "to increase the number of student seats that we have," said Roy Wood, dean of DAU's Defense Systems Management College. "We've almost doubled those through 2008 to increase that training. And we've also increased the quality of training."

But despite initiatives to hire and develop the acquisition employees, some industry leaders worry the pace of rapid change within the overall federal acquisition community is almost too much to handle.

"It's tantamount to doing a major upgrade on an airplane engine while you're flying the plane," said Debbie James, SAIC executive vice president for communications and government affairs. "In other words, they have a million things going on. It's a very high-tempo environment. They're trying to hire up and train thousands of new people into the acquisition workforce while simultaneously teaching them new rules, which they are creating in real time, as well as trying to retrain members of the existing acquisition workforce."

Sequestration plans

Debbie Lee James (Photo: SAIC)

While DoD tries to improve and grow its acquisition workforce, it also must prepare for possible sequestration cuts beginning in 2013. Defense spending would fall by $500 billion over the next decade, unless Congress and the White House agree on a plan to avoid the automatic cuts.

And the threat of significantly reduced spending has forced acquisition leaders to prepare for the worst. The Defense Logistics Agency, for example, plans to spread any required personnel cuts across its workforce, to prevent any one segment from feeling too much of the pinch.

"We have placed a high demand on ourselves to look for considerable and significant savings in everything that we do," said Nancy Heimbaugh, DLA's acquisition director. "At the same time, what we want to do is hold our [acquisition workforce] numbers constant so that we're at least able to meet the…critical mission that we have, but stay in line with those budgetary reductions that are facing us right now."

The Air Force also is keeping a watchful eye on the size of its acquisition workforce. But in addition to budget pressure, it is executing a mandate to reduce the size of its overall workforce to 2010 levels.

"It all depends on what our future missions turn out to be," said Scott Harwood, human capital initiatives manager under the Air Force director of acquisition career management. "As we look across program requirements, and programs change, then we adjust the acquisition workforce appropriately."

This story is part of the Federal News Radio week-long special report, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer.

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