The first time someone used the term personnel bathtub, he literally had to draw me a picture to help me understand. In my head, I pictured an oversized, white, claw-footed tub, but I could not for the life of me figure out how it was to be used, and I have a wild imagination. I’ll give you the advantage given to me and draw you a picture.
Around 2008, a leader I very much respected looked across the Contracting career field and saw what later became known as the personnel bathtub, and she saw how it had a real possibility of destroying our ability to support our country’s defense.
It wasn’t just a Contracting problem though, nor was it just an Air Force problem. In fact, many friends in industry tell me that it’s not even just a Government problem. I had friends at an Agency who told me they had just brought in 200 engineering interns for the same reason that we brought 60 interns into our relatively small organization. We joked at first that the interns outnumbered the journeyman. I had always found that it takes about six months and 50% of my workday every day to get an intern up to speed enough to get some use out of them, and a solid three years to have them functioning at a minimal journeyman level.
No offense intended–this is a complicated career field and unlike some fields of study, it takes a long time to gather a breadth of experience and even longer to gather depth as well. It’s not a reflection of the intelligence of the interns but rather, a reflection of the time and effort needed to learn the complexities. It’s time-consuming for both the intern and the person or persons training the intern, but hopefully with a big payoff.
In other words, bringing trainees or interns into any organization, especially when it’s a three-year and more investment, can be painful to an already under-resourced organization. If you’re going to do that, you need to know that you’re going all in, and you have to weigh the costs against the benefits, knowing that it will be a few years before you see a return on that investment.
But something had to be done, and the leader of a prior organization of mine had enough foresight to know that new blood could be worth the effort.
Really, we had no choice.
Two maybe three years before then, we had been seeing various studies that said the bulk of employees were within five years of retirement age. If you looked a little further at the study, you could see that the majority of Federal employees in this field and related ones would be eligible for not only early retirement but full retirement in, what?, 10 to 15 years. (Note: I’m sure there’s exact data somewhere but these are the numbers I remember from the meetings at the time.) This meant that by 2008, we were already well behind where we needed to be. We had only occasional interns, trainees, and developmental employees, and we had a slew of old-timers thinking about retirement and leaving with a wealth of knowledge and not enough replacements waiting in the wings to be trained to take over. We knew already that we had several soul-crushing years ahead of us while we trained a barrage of new talent just to keep us running. We also knew that it would take another year or two after graduating from an internship for each new employee to be minimally able to stand a Contracting Officer’s warrant board. I’ve sat on dozens of warrant boards and there is a huge difference in seasoning between someone with four or five years of Contracting experience and someone with 10 years of Contracting under his or her belt. Yet, we were already feeling the sense of desperation that we didn’t have enough trained Contract Specialists to develop into Contracting Officers over the next five years.
The personnel bathtub was becoming clear to me. The interns, trainees, and other newbies to Contracting were on the left side of the bathtub, all coming onboard. At the same time, an equal number or greater of old timers were leaving and taking their experience with them, some to become consultants (like me) and others to get reacquainted with family and personal projects they’d ignored in favor of their careers. Those retirees were on the right side of the bathtub. In the middle, the “bathtub” was formed by the lower numbers of experienced buyers and Contracting Officers. These were mostly in the GS-13, unlimited warrant population at my location. In other words, the work horses of the day and the leaders of the future in this career field formed the low numbers of employees that graphically created a bathtub.
There were a couple of reasons for the bathtub, and these are strictly my personal opinions based on living it every day and for being double- and triple-hatted for seven of my last 10 years as a Federal employee. What I mean by that is, we didn’t have enough people to do the job, so I worked double and triple workloads, which means I missed a few things, my work wasn’t always perfect, and I was always struggling to take care of mission over my health and home life. And I wasn’t the only one.
Reasons for the Personnel Bathtub
- Attrition since the mid-90’s. Cutbacks, reduction in personnel slots, having the huge backlog of vacancies zeroed out and then replacements brought at a whopping rate of 1 for every 2 future vacancies, people leaving for greener pastures, people leaving for more progressive employers who supported telework, people leaving for industry, people leaving for personal reasons, people leaving because they were tired of doing their jobs and one or two more because vacancies weren’t allowed to be filled…. I do recall a time a few decades back when some offices had a few slugs, but it’s been years since I’ve seen fat in a buying office and most I know of personally have no hope of accomplishing the basic workload, let alone surges in workload in response to real world urgencies.
- While Contracting limped along through attrition and inability to fill vacancies, other functionals were more robust because they were able to move workload from Federal employees to contracted-out manpower support employees. Contracting, except in a few organizations outside the Air Force that I heard whispers of, was deemed to be an inherent Government function and could not be contracting out. For example, a Contracting Officer signs on behalf of the Government and is authorized to bind the Government. That’s not something that has been interpreted as a legal task of an A&AS (advisory and assistance services) acquisition support contractor. Because Contracting couldn’t rely on an alternative workforce via contractors as could other functionals, very few new people were brought in and the unfilled and wiped-off-the-map vacancies meant there was only a small population at lower levels to be developed into Contracting Officers and Contracting Chiefs.
- Here and there since the mid-90’s, we’ve had a couple of poor leaders. There, I said it, because it was certainly a contributing factor in the departure of those would now still be around and be a wealth of knowledge and at least a few more years from retirement. I watched dead wood leave in the 90’s, but I also watched a lot of good people leave because of an occasional toxic leader who bullied his underlings mercilessly. Some of those employees went on to other Government organizations, became SES’s and later CEO’s of their own companies. Some left Federal employment entirely rather than deal with one bad boss another day, hence the joke of their retirement date being TBD, or Two Bad Days. Those bad bosses moved on and never looked back, and the organizations they ran didn’t miss them. As for the GS-12s and 13’s who fled them, well, that was certainly our loss. Nobody talks much about this, but you know it happens.
- It’s hard to fill the bathtub when no one is good enough. Every organization I know personally is freaking desperate for Contracting Officers. How wonderful it is that one organization’s unlimited warrants are the gold standard, but if no one can qualify because rules can’t be updated to fit the current labor market in Contracting, we all lose. The warrant board system and the personnel system have to find a way to overlap so Contracting Officer vacancies can be filled. Example? Okay, why on earth would a Contracting Officer for Missile Defense Agency or the Army take a downgrade to a GS-12 just get a slot at an Air Force buying office and work their way up to a pre-ordained, warrantable 12/13 slot to face a warrant board and eventually get a 13 after up to a year, when they were already a GS-14 or NH-IV outside the Air Force and CO’ing for a billion dollar program…but not good enough to transfer directly to the Air Force as a CO? Okay, we know we have a bathtub, so let’s fill it but we are so stringent that we aren’t bringing in great people for fear that they might make a mistake? Is it better that no one is at risk for making a mistake because we can’t hire anyone? Now that’s broken. Please, somebody, take a good look at that process and let’s figure out a better way that trusts employees to do their best and forgives an occasional mistake because the wins still greatly outnumber the losses.
- Other Federal entities are paying better and providing better benefits. Ditto industry. I’m immensely proud of people I’ve mentored who had to beg for a chance at facing a warrant board or couldn’t even get a limited warrant as a workhorse GS-12 and they’re getting GS-13’s just by going to a different base or a different agency and earning GS-14 promotions in less than a year…or GS-13’s who skip right over to GS-15 equivalents just by jumping to another Federal entity. What entices people to fill the personnel bathtub? Other than personal reasons, like being near a non-custodial child or near ailing and aging parents? When it comes to staying and filling the bathtub, these employees don’t owe us anything, and if they’re good enough to earn far better elsewhere, we lose. (Yes, I still think of myself as Air Force and “we,” even though I left, too).
Next week, in Part 2, I explain how the Personnel Bathtub hinders IPTs to make them less effective. Come back next Monday or subscribe to get email notification when the next post is up.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
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