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Contractors, the Army's Neglected Stepchildren

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By Stephen Barr
Monday, November 5, 2007

A war zone is no place for on-the-job training, but that's the way it is for many Army contracting personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are a mix of Army officers, enlisted personnel and civil service employees. Many shipped out without proper training and into the chaotic world of combat operations. They often work double shifts and cannot depend on speedy help from Washington, given the difference in time zones.

That lack of support for contracting professionals is not new. Contracting has become a neglected career path at many federal agencies, including the Defense Department, for several years, in part because of deep staffing cuts in the 1990s.

But the neglect has become an urgent problem for the Army, which relies on large-scale contracts for food service, interpreters, computers and other troop-support services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army's contracting staff in the war theater is "under-trained, under-supported and, I would argue, most important, undervalued," said Jacques S. Gansler, an acquisitions expert who was chairman of an independent commission on Army contracting.

The commission last week released a report recommending that the Army overhaul its procurement system and add at least 1,400 military and civil service contracting personnel.

The attitude that contracting is a back-office operation exists across government and often translates into acquisition offices that are not properly staffed and trained, as the Army discovered.

"You could safely say it is a problem that needs to be investigated across other agencies," said Gansler, a University of Maryland professor who was an undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration.

Many contracting officers agree that they need assistance or more training in such areas as project management, negotiation, pricing and fees, subcontracting and identifying fraud. That was one of the findings of a survey conducted this year by the Office of Management and Budget and the Federal Acquisition Institute.

Paul A. Denett, the OMB official in charge of government-wide procurement policy, said agencies have been asked to develop plans to close competency gaps in their acquisition workforces by Dec. 15 and turn them into the Office of Personnel Management for analysis.

The data should tell the government how many additional contracting officers need to be hired and what kind of training to provide, he said. "We're putting all the right priorities on this," he said.

The government has about 1,000 job openings for contracting officers and specialists, known as 1102s in federal jargon. The contracting jobs can often be difficult to fill, especially in the Washington area, where agencies compete for skilled procurement professionals.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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