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Gabrielle Fronce studies her contracting options at UVa.s Falls Church campus.
Gabrielle Fronce studies her contracting options at UVa.s Falls Church campus. (GABRIELE BULISOVA)

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007; 10:27 AM

Gabrielle Fronce reads like a lawyer. She thinks like a lawyer, writes like a lawyer and sometimes even talks like a lawyer. But the 34-year-old Sterling, Va., resident has never been to law school. She works in a field called contracting, which covers the procurement, negotiation, analysis, management of and termination of contracts.

"I considered going to law school for my field," says Fronce, who is 15 months into a Procurement & Contracts Management certificate program at the University of Virginia School of Continuing & Professional Studies in Falls Church (scps.virginia.edu). "This is a great compromise. It's not just law. It's dealing with people, putting contracts together and understanding all the verbiage."

Contracting is big business in the nation's capital, because anytime the government purchases a product or service, the process must comply with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, or FAR, a document so complex that employees - on both the government and contractor sides - don't ever expect to fully understand it. Rather, they learn through programs (like the one at UVa.) how and where to find answers to their questions about contracts.

The FAR, broken into 52 parts over 1,500 pages, is constantly changing. But its purpose of regulating government spending is critical, so the public can see where their money is going. As Northern Virginia Community College instructor Paul Holbert says, "It's a very rule-laden process, but if you don't understand it, it can get you in serious trouble."

According to several professors and administrators at local schools who teach contracting, this field is doing plenty of hiring these days, especially on the government side. "Every agency I've spoken with is worried because of the number of people who will retire in the next several years," says John Min, dean of the business and technologies division at NVCC. "It's one of those critical areas where the government is having a hard time recruiting people. [It doesn't sound] as exciting as sales or engineering, but students who are in the courses understand that it's a great career opportunity."

Fronce works full-time as the supervisor of service contracts for an IT company. The federal and commercial contracts she reviews can range from two to 200 pages and can be valued at up to $5 million. It can take her one hour or five days to complete a contract. She says the biggest eye-opener for her in the UVa. program has been new insight into how the government operates. "We're using the funds of the citizens of the United States," she says. "It's taxpayer money, so it needs to be regulated. It's my job to make sure it's all negotiated properly."

Fronce's classmate, Carolyn McDonald, 31, of Springfield, Va., says the program is much more complex and tedious than she expected, especially when it comes to keeping up on the FAR. But she says being in school while having a job at which she can immediately apply her new knowledge has been priceless.

"I'm learning so much more because I can put it into use," says McDonald, who works for a large consulting firm, which is paying for her enrollment in the UVa. program. "And I'm figuring out how to protect my firm from risk by understanding the rules and the bidding process."

NVCC's Woodbridge campus offers a one-year certificate program in Contract Management through its Continuing Education and Workforce Development office (nvcc.edu), which gives students an overview of contracting and takes them through the contracting cycle, from bid to award to management through close-out. Holbert says many of his students are small-business owners or work in the business office of their companies. There are classes on how to market to the federal government for contracts, how to bid for a contract and how to figure out pricing for contracts.

"Students know this can be a very lucrative field, when you consider most of the federal agencies have headquarters here," Holbert says. Salaries can range from about $40,000 to $75,000 and higher, based on experience and whether you're working for a small firm, a large firm or the government. Holbert says the government awards a contract approximately every 20 seconds, at an average dollar value of $465,000, for a total of about $200 billion annually.

David Honadle, a 38-year-old attorney who lives in Stafford, Va., says he took Holbert's class because he was working on a case that was tied into procurement law and he needed a better understanding of contracting. His case has since closed, but he plans to continue with the certificate program because he found it so informative.

"One of the best things is that other students have all this experience they're sharing," Honadle says. "One woman at the State Department gave a lot of real-life examples that helped me understand what we were studying."

Monica Thompson, 35, who served 12 years in U.S. Army intelligence, is also taking the certificate program to learn the ins and outs of government contracting. She started her own intelligence business this year.

"We're discussing things in class that I need to know in my start-up, and our textbook is like a Bible to me," says Thompson, who is based in Alexandria. "I am also learning about the benefits to me as a small-business owner - like being a veteran and being a woman. This course talks about the advantages of those."

She says the certificate program is ideal for her, because she wasn't interested in sitting through another two years of school. "I'm just hoping the government buyer I'm dealing with will look at my resume and see the federal contractor certificate on there, and they will think, 'She knows what this game is all about and how to play it.'"

MELANIE D.G. KAPLAN


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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