Remember the defense contracting story about the $600 hammer? Well, now there's the $7-an-hour engineer.

It's apparently all a result of the Defense Department's emphasis on competition to get the lowest bid, an emphasis prompted by scathing criticism of the previous procurement system that produced outrageous cost overruns on such common items as hammers and toilet seats. To come in low, some contractors are offering services at rates that seem to be a few levels below the bargain basement.

According to Washington Technology, a weekly newspaper that covers the local high-tech field, the $7 engineer first appeared last April, when the Naval Air System Command awarded a $9.4 million contract to Information Spectrum Inc. of Arlington and Cherry Hill, N.J. A subcontractor on the contract, National Technologies Associates of Arlington, agreed to supply optical, electrical and mechanical engineers for $7.29 an hour, including wages and benefits -- a big contrast with the $30 per hour the Navy used to pay.

NTA President Bob Sales told Washington Technology he recruits engineers from rural areas, where salaries are low, and hires part-time engineers who want to supplement income from full-time jobs.

Sales declined to comment on his hiring practices last week, saying simply, "The Navy is getting a good quality product. We're very concerned about the procurement process. But I don't think we're at fault. I don't think the Navy's at fault. It's the way the procurement process is set up, and it can be fixed."

SHOPPING TRIP

On his way around the world, Peter Gummer stopped off in Washington last week.

Gummer, chief executive officer and founder of Shandwick PLC -- a fast-growing British public relations conglomerate with $85 million in yearly revenue and offices in Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim -- is looking to pick up a few more American public relations firms. So after opening the firm's 40th office in Melbourne, Australia, last week, he came to Washington.

He's no stranger to these parts. During the past year, Shandwick has purchased The Adams Group, Publishing Group Inc. and Henry J. Kaufman & Associates Inc. in Washington and the Sandler Group of Baltimore.

Shandwick is having conversations with a number of Washington PR firms, Gummer said, and is particularly interested in acquiring firms with specialties in lobbying and public relations for high-technology firms.

"We're working very hard on high technology," said Gummer, whose company has a network of high-tech PR firms in Boston, San Francisco, Dallas and Philadelphia. With the growing number of high-tech firms in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, Washington should be "a lively area in that respect," he said.

JUST A COINCIDENCE

Hecht Co. is taking no chances. With Nordstrom's planning a gala opening for its new Tysons Corner store next week, Hecht's is now touting the "grand reopening" of its Tysons Corner store.On March 2, just two days before Seattle-based Nordstrom's is scheduled to open its first store on the East Coast, Hecht's will host a charity day, selling $5 tickets for admission to its Tysons store -- the proceeds will go to local charities. In return, shoppers will get a host of discounts, gifts and the opportunity to mingle with television and sports stars.

Then, a day later, Willard Scott will cut the ribbon for the grand reopening ceremony of Hecht's, which has undergone an 18-month, $15 million renovation, with more than 45,000 square feet added to the store.

The fact that the grand reopening festivities occur the same week as Nordstrom's arrival in Washington is strictly "coincidental," Hecht's chairman, J. Warren Harris, said. "We started renovating before we knew exactly when they were going to open."