Help on the Horizon for Acquisition Community

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In 2000, I  wrote an article titled “Crisis in the Acquisition Workforce” in the Defense Acquisition University’s quarterly review that said there was a tsunami heading toward the acquisition community and that it would be prudent to begin to prepare for this oncoming crisis. The crisis was coming as retirement-eligible professionals left the acquisition work force with no replacements in sight.

Very few organizations paid attention to this warning, even though it was by no means prescient or revolutionary. Most acquisition professionals were aware that the approach that the Defense Department had used to cut the size of the acquisition work force as a result of the demand for a “peace dividend” likely would have consequences early in the new millennium.

The matter came down to two critical factors, both related to money. The space business was booming and was looking to spend significant dollars on replacement programs for aging space communications, surveillance, launch and other systems that had not seen upgrades in decades. The acquisition business for the Defense Department was shrinking as a result of the perception that with the end of the Cold War, we should need far less in support of the national defense.

“Acquisition reform” had been instituted in the mid-1990s as a way to do acquisition faster, better and, most important, cheaper, with the hope that through the use of commercial practices, the Defense Department could get more hardware for less money and thereby provide a cushion to the need to shrink the budget during a time that personnel costs and the use of U.S. power around the globe was not diminishing but increasing.

As we entered the new millennium, space programs became more costly and there was a move to go “back to the basics,” which meant the acquisition process needed to implement many of the activities that had been jettisoned in order to help with the fiscal crisis. One thing that was missing from the effective implementation of this strategy was the availability of skilled professionals who could help with the reconstitution of the acquisition work force.

A temporary fix was to be found through the use of private support contractors who could furnish some of the experience of individuals who had been let go by the government, but this was a short-term solution. The better choice would be the hiring of skilled acquisition professionals as government employees.

This would mean that substantial funding would be required to bring back the experts. But no money was available for this in the budget of most of the Defense Department acquisition organizations, which were, in many cases, struggling with program cost growth and schedule delays and could not afford to execute this approach. Space was no exception.

It is now almost 10 years later, and the critical need has been recognized. More important, funding has become available to acquisition organizations to implement developmental programs that can train young individuals in the functional skills that are necessary to return acquisition to the “Centers of Excellence” of the 1980s and 1990s.

The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles has initiated an intern development program that is divided into several functional areas of expertise. The primary focus areas will be engineering, program management, contracting and financial management. The initial concern was with the need to integrate a large group of new people into an overburdened system that was trying to accommodate a healthy workload with limited resources.

On top of the existing workload, the obvious need was to provide training (both classroom and real world) to the new interns in a meaningful manner. It would be unreasonable to expect the people doing the work to take on the additional task of training their potential replacements. It would be especially difficult to ask them to train their eventual bosses.

The SMC has come up with a way to streamline the development process and attempt to shorten the time in which replenishment parts can come into the pipeline: New program managers and contracting officers can be trained and inserted into the acquisition system. The process is modeled to some degree upon the Pacer Produce program that the Air Force Logistics Command used during the 1980s to bring a large group of logistics professionals into the system after the problem that was associated with the procurement of spare parts, including toilet seats and hammers.

The format is a sort of total immersion as a large group, with classes from the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), short-term training sessions (both formal and informal) and mentor sessions with experienced professionals, many with 30 

years in the acquisition business. The initial complement of trainees has finished the program, and additional classes started Jan. 22.

The program starts with an orientation to the space enterprise and is followed by some DAU coursework with a DAU professor complemented by some distance learning coursework. The mentoring is ongoing and complementary to the formal training.

It is a start. There is recognition that not all interns will stay with SMC or even in the acquisition career field. We have benefited from the downturn in the economy, which has allowed us to be selective in the individuals that we bring into the program. We recognize that we are not unique in the approach that we are using, and we have cross-pollinated with other acquisition centers to utilize some “best practices” that they have developed. This will be a long-term commitment to the interns and, we hope, will provide some help to the work force as we lose more expertise with the retirement of highly trained and motivated workers.

 

James Gill is employed at the
U.S.
Air Force Space and
Missile
Systems
Center
in
Los Angeles
. The views represented in this article are solely his own and do not reflect those of the
U.S.
Air Force.