So you want to be a contracting officer, but don’t know where to begin?
One procurement veteran says it all starts with communication skills.
Communications, perhaps more than procurement know-how, may give you a leg up on the competition.
“I keep hearing that people are coming out of school, and they aren’t learning to be really good writers,” said Joanie Newhart, who’s spent 30 some years in acquisition. “You absolutely have to; that’s the foundation of any decision — you have to write it down, document it and you know someone is going to look at it so it has to be digestible and defensible.”
Newhart, who’s served as associate administrator of acquisition workforce programs at the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy since May 2010, said there are two other components the next-generation of acquisition workforce should consider.
First, because procurement is so complex, contracting officers must have critical thinking skills. There’s something called the Federal Acquisition Regulation — the bible of procurement rules, if you will — that acquisition officers must be well versed in.
“If you look at the FAR, there’s so much they have to know and apply,” said Newhart, whose government career includes stints at the Transportation Department, the Small Business Administration and Securities and Exchange Commission. “Every day, people are coming to our office, saying, ‘we need to train the contracting officer on this or that.’ It’s just really important to help them weed through all of that.”
As contracting officers run major procurement efforts and manage teams and other employees, they also have to possess leadership skills, Newhart noted.
“They really have to have the right attitude and be able to lead in order to get good acquisition outcomes,” she said.
Newhart and her colleagues have been working on new ways to cultivate and train this tech-savvy cohort. For example, the Federal Acquisition Institute, which aims to foster the development of the federal acquisition workforce, has a solicitation out for an interactive challenge, Newhart said. “We’re dipping our toes into simulation,” she added.
“Younger people want to learn quickly and they want hands-on learning,” she continued. “They don’t want to go sit in class for a month to learn something.”
Workforce development is another cornerstone in that cultivation strategy. Newhart said her office has been pushing mentoring and rotational assignments among younger employees so they can get more experience. And coupling a young employee with a more senior colleague, “we really need that pairing,” she said.
Mentoring is never a one-way street, and Newhart said she’s learned several things from her younger coworkers.
“Their fresh attitude — we’re finding that you don’t have to hire somebody that’s been in acquisition forever; it’s just as effective to hire somebody who’s smart, bright and has the right attitude. You can teach that person acquisition and contracting.”
“Plus, they teach me computer stuff!” Newhart added, with a laughter.