The Washington Post

At contractor FCI Federal, job opportunities for high-school-educated workers

Harvard Business School students cheer during their graduation ceremonies in Boston, Massachusetts, in this June 4, 2009 file picture. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

At many companies in the professional services industry, a college degree is a common denominator among all employees.

FCI Federal, however, doesn’t put much stock in that credential. The Leesburg-based company, which provides administrative support for government agencies, estimates that 95 percent of its employees have only a high-school education.

High-school graduates are “a workforce that is undervalued by many organizations,” said Sharon Virts Mozer, FCI Federal’s president.

And Mozer is employing that demographic in increasingly large numbers. At a time when many local businesses have slashed jobs and the region’s professional services sector has seen only moderate job growth, FCI Federal has increased its workforce from 37 workers in 2007 to 1,400 in 2012. It expects to hire 500 to 600 more people in the new year.

Hiring almost exclusively from among high-school graduates wasn’t part of Mozer’s initial plan for her business.

“It wasn’t an active thing that we set out to do, but when we watched our business and what it was doing, we saw that to be a much better option,” Mozer said.

FCI Federal has seen less turnover when it hires high-school graduates, a pattern that saves time and cuts costs related to employee training.

“In order to maximize investment, we look to folks who we know will stay,” Mozer said.

It is hard to pinpoint why FCI Federal’s turnover rates are better with this group than with college graduates, but the company theorizes that it has to do with the difficulty of finding work during the recession and sluggish recovery. That challenge has been felt more acutely by lower-skilled workers.

Mozer has also found that high-school graduates are sometimes able to obtain security clearances more easily than other prospective workers. Since they are relatively young, they haven’t had as many chances to develop credit troubles or other problems that might affect their eligibility for a clearance.

This is important to FCI Federal because many of its contracts, such as those with the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Coast Guard, require a clearance.

Mozer may not be looking for a diploma, but she has other means of evaluating whether job candidates are a good fit for her company.

“We give them tests on basic skills,” Mozer said. “Can you file? Can you do things in sequence? Do you have good attention to detail? What are your keyboarding skills like?”

Investing in these relatively inexperienced workers has meant the company has to place heightened emphasis on training. Instead of using a classroom-style course to provide instruction, the company prefers an incremental, hands-on approach. Mozer said employees typically start with a task that’s fairly easy and repetitive and then gradually move to more complex work. Job shadowing has been a key learning technique for preparing workers for new assignments.

Since many of FCI Federal’s employees are scattered at work sites across the country, the company also dispatches a team to provide orientation to new workers. At the helm of that team is Alicia Aldridge, a high school-educated staffer who started with the company as a general clerk and has risen to the role of program manager.

“It’s really important that they see my story,” Aldridge said, because it gives employees a window into the advancement opportunities the company provides.

FCI Federal plans to maintain its unconventional approach to hiring as it ramps up for what it expects will be a burst of growth in its workforce. The company is pursuing new contracts to assist the State Department with passport and visa processing. It is also working to land contracts with government health-care programs.

“We think the sky’s the limit in the federal market,” Mozer said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.



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