The Federal Acquisition Institute is taking an individual approach to professional growth.
Although Jeffrey Birch acknowledges that few people think about acquisition as a profession, these talented individuals perform the critical processes to acquire supplies and services for the federal government. And the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) promotes excellence within this workforce by providing training, research, human capital, and career development opportunities.
As acting director of FAI, Birch works closely with acquisition professionals from multiple agencies from across the federal government to ensure that the acquisition workforce is qualified and ready for today's as well as tomorrow's challenges. Here, he talks with The Public Manager about how FAI is addressing skills gaps within the workforce and providing targeted professional development to foster individual growth.
Can you tell us about yourself and your career? What are your current responsibilities, and how has your career path led you here?
Let me begin by saying that I don't think anyone grows up wanting to be an acquisition professional. When I started my acquisition career, I had no real understanding of the federal government's acquisition process nor, quite honestly, had I thought about how the military or civilian agencies acquired the supplies or services that make our government operate.
Officially, I started my contracting career with the U.S. Navy as a contracting specialist and really didn't think about what career opportunities would become available. Over the years, I was an instructor for the Navy's automated procurement system and traveled to the many naval bases and facilities. I served as the contracting knowledge management officer, helped establish the Small Business Learning Center of Excellence, and led the Procurement Management Review process in Singapore, where I traveled throughout southeast Asia performing procurement reviews at the many and diverse Navy facilities. I also developed contracting course curriculum and taught several contracting courses for the Department of Defense. In 2012, I joined the FAI team as the deputy director and am now serving as the acting director.
I've been extremely fortunate for the opportunities and experiences that I continue to have in my career. I attribute my career success to establishing relationships with colleagues and acquaintances.
Many industries in the private sector are experiencing significant gaps in recruiting skilled labor. How is the skills gap problem affecting government, and why are traditional models for filling those gaps not working?
Across the federal government, there are a multitude of diverse, complex, and critical missions. Our acquisition workforce members are required to research, evaluate, and apply specific policies and practices to achieve these diverse missions. To successfully perform these duties, acquisition workforce members must gain the necessary education, training, and experience. The goal of this three-pronged approach is to develop adaptive, innovative, and high-performing acquisition workforce professionals.
Our Federal Acquisition Certification (FAC) training is built on a set of identified competencies and performance outcomes. These competencies were established by subject matter experts from within our three FAC functional areas: contracting, program/project management, and contracting officers representative.
To assess the competence of the individuals who make up our acquisition workforce community, the FAI conducts a biennial competency survey. The design and administration of the survey is guided by three objectives. The first is to identify the strengths and priority training needs of the federal acquisition workforce. Second, we need to improve acquisition human capital planning. And the third is to gauge the developmental progress of the acquisition community in targeted areas.
The process of determining how to address those skill gaps is a topic of discussion across both the public and private sectors. More times than not, we hear that there's an issue with the required training and that developing new training will fix the skills gap problem. In fact, training is just one solution to address the identified skills gaps. This is where experience and the ability to have experiential learning opportunities come into play and are so critical in the career development of our employees.
I suspect that if you asked a colleague or neighbor about how they gained most of their work skills and competence, the answer would be through experiences that occurred throughout their careers. Formal training is critical to gain foundational knowledge, but it's not the only way to develop expertise.
How has FAI identified skills gaps in the past? How are you changing your approach, and why?
At FAI, we're working on a new initiative to evolve the assessment and training management tools we have in place. We want to take government decision making on acquisition training from the agency-wide macro level to a more actionable, individual level.
Our current process uses aggregated competency assessments to identify general skills gaps across the acquisition community. However, this information doesn't directly empower individuals who might have specific development needs. Having government-wide data and information is valuable when making general comments or assessments, but it's definitely more actionable when you can target a specific individual or smaller segment of the population. In other words, we're presenting great information to agencies now, but we are striving to make the information more actionable and at the individual level.
Our goal is to tailor our approach and processes to provide individual reports with identified learning opportunities that target their specific skill gaps. Ideally, these individual reports will provide information about where skills development is specifically needed—based on proficiency rankings in general areas. From there, further certification or a wider range of general training and career-broadening options could be recommended.
As we all know, learning is a lifelong process, so to ensure our workforce stays current on acquisition policies and practices, each member is required to earn 80 continuous learning points every two years. This provides individuals with learning opportunities to ensure currency and expand their competence on new or evolving initiatives.
How has the generational shift in the workforce driven the need for new approaches to professional development? What attitudes have younger workers brought with them to the workforce, and why is it important to stay ahead of this curve?
Today's workforce is very diverse, multigenerational, and educated. These three elements combined position the federal government to become more agile, innovative, and efficient at achieving mission success. Indeed, across both the private and public sectors, we have a multigenerational workforce. Integrating this diverse community is a discussion topic of many senior leaders.
For example, Millennials are changing the game when it comes to expectations for job longevity and experience building. The old thinking was that you had to be with an organization for decades before you could develop the expertise that would propel you to your highest performance levels so you could become a manager or leader. That's definitely not how the younger workforce thinks or wants to be managed. They want to work for an agency whose mission they believe in, and they are eager to learn and apply new skills so they can make a difference now.
Additionally, many of our younger workforce members value work-life balance and want more time to share with family and friends. That's not to say our more mature workers don't enjoy work-life balance, but many have identified themselves by their work.
Recently, a friend was telling me that she was developing training on how to manage the Millennial workforce. I responded by saying, "They probably want to manage us." But the truth of the matter is that it's not about one group managing the other group; it's more about leveraging one another's talents and expertise and broadening the way we think or react.
Across the federal government, we're fortunate to have such dedicated, loyal, and talented senior leaders. But at some point, they will want to move on to a new chapter in life. As a result, succession planning and human capital management are becoming increasingly more important. We haven't seen the retirement wave that everyone was expecting, for various reasons. If you look around, in many federal government offices, you will see Baby Boomers still hard at work. On the flip side of this equation, when you look into many of the private sector offices, there are considerably more Millennials hustling and bustling around.
What is FAI doing to change the way learning and development is delivered to the geographically dispersed civilian acquisition workforce? More specifically, how are you working to make training individualized? Can you provide some real-world examples?
Not only is today's acquisition workforce geographically dispersed, many more agencies are offering telework options. Recently, we have offered specific opportunities for instructor-led virtual training. We have discovered that there is a greater demand for virtual training when there is a choice between classroom or virtual.
We actually had two FAI team members take our instructor-led virtual course, and they were surprised at how engaging and involved it was. They couldn't leave their computer to work on other projects or efforts because the instructor and course design structure required them to participate in various exercises or demos. This delivery modality can be very effective for specific types of learning, but, as we know, not all learning is appropriate for this style of delivery.
FAI also is looking into making available more cross-functional training opportunities. This is where members of the acquisition team attend the same training session and work together on an acquisition or specific element of the acquisition process. When the contracting officer, program manager, legal, finance, and others come together and work through the exercises, they gain a better understanding of the impact their specific role has on the larger process. We have made this type of training available where the integrated team actually walks through the development of an actual acquisition requirement. The response we hear is that participants have a greater appreciation for the processes and technicalities that each specific team member or function performs in the larger acquisition.
Another example is FAI's Knowledge Nuggets video segments. These micro-bursts of information highlight or spur interest in a specific element within a broader topic area. In an environment tight on time and requiring just-in-time information, the videos offer acquisition workforce members a quick way to learn about new concepts or hot topics. They are designed to answer a few fundamental questions, explain the basics of the subject, and inform the viewer on the importance of the topic. While Knowledge Nuggets are less than 10 minutes long, each video encourages viewers to learn more and offers additional training resources to provide more in-depth coverage.
How can workers in a particular agency expand their skill sets if that agency doesn't require particular functions? Can you give particular examples of how this might work?
Federal employees may be certified for a specific functional area, but they may lack the specific knowledge that comes with hands-on application of a particular skill—simply because their job or agency does not perform or have a need to perform that specific process. To meet this challenge, we help personnel identify supplemental opportunities to expand their current capabilities. These career development opportunities may be less formal and time-consuming than a formal detail for several months to another agency, but they are more involved and "hands-on" than simply taking a class.
To illustrate how this can work, I'll use the example of source selection—an essential (and involved) part of a more complex acquisition. Because many smaller agencies do not perform multi-million dollar source selections as part of their acquisition activities, their employees may never see the opportunity to be involved in or perform this complex process.
Under FAI's initiative, a worker looking to gain experience in this skill might be matched with an individual or team at a different agency that is beginning a source selection. The employee would then join that team either remotely or through some other arrangement to participate in the complete source selection process while remaining at his or her home agency. This kind of cross-government career broadening experience opens the door to many benefits for these employees and their home agency.
What do you see in the future in terms of how skills gaps are addressed in the federal government? Could experiential learning be a model that takes hold?
Experiential learning is a critical element in our "three-pronged" professional development approach. These opportunities integrated throughout one's career development certainly enrich employee skills by providing them with opportunities they may not otherwise have. These learning opportunities broaden the scope of the job so that they have access to the kind of on-the-job experiences and application opportunities that will prepare them to perform more complex processes or activities within the acquisition process.
In addition, this kind of learning has the potential to inject fluidity and new perspectives into a job that may have been performed in the same manner for decades, introducing efficiencies and new ways of doing business, as well as establishing relationships for future collaborative developments. What's more, bringing new skills into an agency and broadening experiences without disturbing the talent resources that are already in place could help change the way we do business in specific agencies and across government.