Army to close D.C.-area contracting center in bid to reduce staff turnover

Wednesday - 12/5/2012, 8:24pm EST

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The Army Contracting Command plans to shut down its Washington, D.C.-area contracting office, one of its six such centers it operates in the continental U.S., in the middle part of next year.

The reason's not entirely about shrinking military budgets. Rather, in the Washington area, ACC is only one fish in a huge pond of acquisition talent, said Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, the contracting command's commanding general.

"We had great folks there, but we couldn't compete in the national capital region to retain all of that talent," Nichols said during an hour-long interview on Federal News Radio's On DoD. "We have a great training and intern program, so much so that some of the other services have told me they don't even do a training program, they just wait and hire our guys away. In a place like the national capital region where there are many, many agencies that need contracting professionals, it was very, very difficult. We had an enormous attrition rate there."

The center, located in Alexandria, Va., employs 260 federal civilians and six soldiers. Nichols said none of the jobs will be eliminated, but the work will moved to some of the Army's other major contracting centers, which are located in Aberdeen, Md.; Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.; Redstone, Ala.; Rock Island, Ill.; and Warren, Mich.

"We're hoping to be able to entice them all to move to the new locations, but if they won't go to the new locations we're going to work with them, just as we did when we moved our headquarters here [to Huntsville, Ala.] We were able to place every individual. No individual went without a job," Nichols said.

While the command believes it will improve its retention rates and save money by not having to pay high D.C. rates for leased office space, Nichols acknowledged there are downsides to not having a physical presence inside the Beltway.

"Most of our Army customers want their contracting person right there, even though a lot of our work is not done forward," she said. "What we need though is a face to the customer that gives them great confidence that we understand their priorities and we're working on their priorities. So the downside is we need more interaction between our [principal assistants responsible for contracting], our SES employees who are going to be engaging back to the customers in Washington. You'll have to have more telephonic dialogue and more travel to go meet with the customer."

Irrespective of work location, Nichols said she has plenty of reasons to be concerned about holding on to her command's base of expertise. Like much of the rest of DoD's acquisition workforce, ACC has a "bathtub" in its acquisition workforce, with a lot of relatively new hires on one edge of the career progression spectrum and a lot of soon-to-be retirees at the other.

"We're very, very worried about not just the bathtub, but the fact that many of our incredibly talented contracting professionals, even my PARCs, are at a point in time where they're sitting at 30 to 35 years, and they are tired," she said. "They have given more than their all. So I'm trying to find ways to do knowledge acceleration." For example, some of the command's most seasoned acquisition experts are being asked to serve exclusively as mentors to their younger peers rather than carrying a contracting workload of their own.

And for the younger workforce, Nichols said ACC is experimenting with alternative ways to conduct training on the ins-and-outs of contracting, such as with avatar-based virtual environments.

"We're trying to sort of power down our knowledge and accelerate in many different ways. Our young folks learn in different ways than our more mature workforce did," she said. "Sitting in classrooms and the school of hard knocks isn't necessarily the way our young folks like to learn. They don't like to ask a lot of questions, but they like to be visual. We're also trying to monitor the progress so we can send folks in a one-on-one mentoring role, marrying them up with an expert in something that they've never done before or that they're having trouble with."

Nichols said she also hopes to retain her command's best and brightest by appropriately recognizing them when they do good work - a concept that also happens to be part of the Defense Department's latest blueprint for acquisition improvement, Better Buying Power 2.0.

She said while there's a chorus of inspectors general and audit agencies that regularly chastise the military for acquisition slip-ups, there are far too few mechanisms for praising success.