Army rebuilding contracting workforce

Thursday - 9/16/2010, 6:49am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

The Army is trying to get the word out that it needs good people to help manage the more than $100 billion annually spent on materiel and systems.

Jeff Parsons, executive director of the Army Contracting Command, told a Pentagon briefing of reporters on Wednesday that, "our largest challenge is hiring people that have experience in contracting today. Absent the supply of trained and experiencing contracting officers, we are in a huge developmental cycle right nowhere we are rebuilding, and building the base for our contracting positions."

Several years ago, in the wake of the first Army contracting scandal from the early days of the Iraq War, the Pentagon asked former Defense Department Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Jacques Gansler to examine what had gone wrong with military contracting and procurement.

Among the 2007 findings of the Gansler Commission, the Army's contracting workforce had been slowly whittled away in the years leading up to the Afghanistan war, leaving it unable to provide oversight over the sudden surge in spending before and during the early days of the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the staff that was in place was poorly trained and equipped with antiquated procurement tracking systems.

Now, nearly three years later, and thanks to beefed up appropriations and attention from Congress, Parsons says Army contracting has become a career path that more people should consider.

"If you go to our Armyhire website, you'll get a feel for the salary ranges," Parsons said. "I think it is very competitive for individuals just coming out of college. A GS-7 makes nearly $40,000, but what we tell people is that within a matter of a few years, you can certainly be up in the $60,000 to $70,000 range, and I think it is very competitive."

In addition, Parsons said the Army offers, in some cases, to help students repay college loans, and also provides contracting employees the opportunity to earn advanced degrees.

Parsons said the lagging economy and persistent high jobless rate mean that the Army has recently been able to find a new crop of contracting pros in what several years ago would have been an unconventional place.

"A lot of the folks we are attracting today are making mid-career changes," he said. "Where they had been in other career fields, they've now decided to come to Army contracting. Especially areas like Detroit and Rock Island, Ill., where a lot of folks have been impacted by the economy. We have picked up quite a few individuals who have been buyers in the auto industry, or the steel industry, or the aluminum industry, that we've brought into contracting."

Parsons said they received hundreds of applications at the Army Contracting Command's Rock Island office when they held a few job fairs and did other mass advertising for the 25 positions they had open recently. The Army also successfully recruited 75-to-100 new contracting officials this way.

But he said that with attrition from retirement and other factors, the Army is faced with needing as many as 500 new contracting officials almost every year for the foreseeable future.

With expected cutbacks in America's space program, and with contracting officials who purchase materiel and systems just like the Pentagon, one might think that NASA might be a fertile field for recruiting experienced contracting officials. But that is far from the plan, said Kim Denver, the director of contracting for the Army Corps of Engineer's National Contracting Organization.

"We don't poach on other (federal) organizations," she said. "That's what our strategy has been, to bring new individuals into the government."

Ed Harrington, the Army's assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, said the emphasis by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on contracting and the acquisition workforce is a huge part of the Army's equation to fix its contracting processes.

"We've got tremendous challenges balancing the workforce with the workload," he said. "And we see the workload continuing on at the same level, as the Army looks to draw down in Iraq."

As if to underscore the need for experienced Army contracting professionals right here in the Washington area, Harrington waved a flyer advertising multiple vacancies for senior procurement analysts, with a salary range of between $99,000, and $164,000 per year.

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