Risk and reward: An innovative strategy pays off

Published June 11, 2024
A man in a red shirt sits behind a computer with a blue coffee mug in front of him.

Erick Ottoson, contracting specialist, Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, works at his desk in the Contracting Division. Ottoson started at the Kansas City District two years ago as a developmental intern in the Contracting Division’s innovative hiring program and has since received his Defense Acquisition certification.

A man in a red shirt sits behind a computer.

Erick Ottoson, contracting specialist, Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, works at his desk in the Contracting Division. Ottoson started at the Kansas City District two years ago as a developmental intern in the Contracting Division’s innovative hiring program and has since received his Defense Acquisition certification.

The toughest problems require the most creative solutions. Being willing to think outside the box to find the answers can feel risky, but often the rewards are great. This is something the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District’s Contracting Division knows firsthand.

For the past three fiscal years, the Contracting Division has been able to successfully complete its mission, awarding upwards of $700 million in obligated funds and as many as 1,670 contracts per year. However, four years ago, the Contracting Division was facing a problem that was exhausting every current solution.

It was time to get creative.

The Need

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the district found itself with a shortage of contracting specialists, and a smaller pool of applicants than before.

“In 2020 … there was upheaval,” said Lacy Kay, the environmental programs branch chief in the contracting division. “With virtual jobs versus [in-office] jobs, coming back to the office or not coming back to the office, we really struggled to find journeymen level contract specialists to come in, hit the ground running and do the job, to fill the significant turnover that we had.”

The Contracting Division was running into a problem that had been getting progressively worse over the years: in the already specialized and relatively small federal contracting career field, the number of qualified contracting specialists with the experience USACE was looking for has been steadily decreasing, coupled with competition from other agencies also looking for contracting specialists. The turnover rate in the career field has traditionally been high as well, with so many opportunities available.

Contracting specialists are integral to the district’s ability to accomplish its mission. They execute the contracts that give USACE the means to do its work.

Each of the Kansas City District’s different missions—for example, environmental programs, civil works or military programs—have a different branch of the contracting division assigned to work on its projects. These branches are responsible for conducting market research, preparing solicitations and any number of tasks to advance the contract towards being awarded.

However, the Contracting Division was struggling with significant staffing shortages and facing the possibility of not being able to accomplish all the work coming their way.

This spelled out large implications for the district.

“When we’re short on people, we don’t have enough bandwidth to train the new people that we do have, and we’re also constrained in executing our work,” said Brad Wright, chief of the Contracting Division for the Kansas City District. “We can’t solicit, award or administer as many contracts as we would be able to if we were fully staffed. So, in the end, that could have a direct impact on our district’s ability to execute the mission, which could have an impact to our customers.”

Given the stakes, a shortage of contracting specialists was not something the district could allow. It was time to start looking at things in a completely new way.

The Start

Facing the issue head on, the Contracting Division decided to take a new approach.

In the past, they had sought the most highly qualified contracting professionals to come on board with the district. This was a logical approach, given the amount of work that goes into becoming a qualified contracting professional. Within USACE as well, the career field gets even more specialized.

To become a contracting specialist requires a two-year Defense Acquisition certification process ending with a professional certification test. There is also extensive on-the-job training on the many levels of regulation the contracting division needs to know inside-and-out. 

“We’re bound to follow the Federal Acquisition Regulations. On top of that we have a Department of Defense supplement, then we’ve got a U.S. Army supplement, then we’ve got USACE acquisition instructions … each one more restrictive as it goes,” said Wright.

Although the team worked hard to create an environment to retain people and to recruit the right people, they eventually had to face that they were in a competitive career field and job market with naturally high turnover.

“If you’re doing everything you can to retain people and you still have [shortages], you have to come to accept that this is a career field where you’re just going to have turnover,” said Wright. “People are going to get trained, they’re going to want to pursue other opportunities potentially, maybe they want a fully remote position somewhere.”

Therefore, while continuing all their efforts at retention, the Contracting Division decided to turn its focus to a part of the process they hadn’t thought to change before. 

The Process

When going into the hiring process and looking for the highest qualifications wasn’t bringing about the results they’d hoped for, the team decided to take a risk: instead of just changing their hiring process, they decided to change who they were looking for as well.

“The solution wasn’t to hire a bunch of [journeymen level] contracting specialists, it was to find people we can train, people who are motivated,” said Kay. “Sometimes [the answer] isn’t the solution you [originally] walked into the room to discuss.”  

Kay is someone who had a contracting background before coming to USACE, however, she still had to be trained on USACE’s specific contracting requirements when she first started with the district. The Contracting Division realized that they were already spending time training experienced contracting professionals on USACE’s processes and requirements. Taking this into consideration, they decided to hire new talent and pioneer a training program right out of their own office.

Beginning this process would require a lot of commitment and hard work from the team. The first round of entry-level employees would have to be trained by an office already short on manning power. However, once the first round of employees came through, they could turn around and start to help train the next round.

But in order to get this process started, they had to figure out how to find these new hires; people Wright described as ambitious and customer-service minded, with well-rounded educations.

To start their search, the team went right to the first step — the interview. Questions changed to focus on how a person might fit into the team and how willing they are to learn, versus the technical skills they already have.

“It’s great if you have a master’s degree and some understanding of business, but some of the best people we’ve had have been librarians, teachers, other mid-career transitioners or fresh out of college,” said Kay. “They bring a different perspective, they’re organized, they communicate well, and they’re motivated.”  

Now, with the new interview process, the team is able to sort through applicants from varied backgrounds and select the best fit. They then bring the new hire in as an intern within the training program. Interns work in cohorts, all starting in groups at around the same time.

“The idea is to bring them all on and help them progress through the training at a similar pace so they can utilize each other’s experience and knowledge,” said Wright.

This new program was a fundamental change to the division’s thought process and strategy, but as they’ve evaluated the progress the office has made, the team now knows it was well worth the risk.

The Outcome

The original group of developmental interns was hired almost two years ago. In that time, almost the entire first cohort completed their certification process within a year and a half.

“They’re given two years to get their certification, so actually they’re moving through their [program] faster and at a decreased cost compared to the [journeymen level] applicants we were struggling to hire earlier, because the Army Civilian Career Management Activity is providing funding for quite a few of the [interns] to come in and get their training and additional support,” said Kay.

Erick Ottoson, one of the former interns who recently received his certification, said the program prepared him well for his role as a contracting specialist. He described the course as a good foundation and said his coworkers have been patient and willing to share their knowledge.

“Even if you don’t have any direct experience working for the federal government or working for the Army or working in contracting, you can come here if you’re interested in it and they will train you,” Ottoson said.

When asked what he would say to anyone who is interested in working for contracting with USACE, Ottoson had some advice. 

“Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have any experience in this, that’s okay. You just have to be willing to apply yourself and learn it,” he said. “I’ve seen it with myself and with my colleagues that started at the same time. We’ve gone through the process … [and] we’ve come very far since the time that we started.”

As for Kay and Wright, they don’t have any doubt that this program has turned the contracting office in the right direction.

“I truly believe if we had not changed tactics at the end of 2021, beginning of 2022, we wouldn’t be able to execute the work that we’re currently working,” Kay said. “In [my branch] alone, we’re usually [working with] about $200 million in obligations, last year was almost $400 million and this year is over $400 [million.] If we weren’t on round three of our interns, I wouldn’t be able to execute this mission.”

Almost half of Kay’s team has less than three years of experience. The team is still learning and growing, but they are also completing real work and moving the mission forward. Having gone from facing the possibility of the division being unable to complete all their work to now working with at least 50% more funds than before, the program is without a doubt a success of innovation.

Wright, Kay and their team have a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished through this program. However, the reason this program was so crucial to begin with was the essential role of the Contracting Division within the district.

“Contracting is … being able to pull in the right team to find the solutions. At the end of the day, we’re the business advisors helping to find policy-supported solutions for our technical teams at a fair and reasonable price,” said Kay. “It’s challenging, it's never the same, every day is going to be different, and we’re doing great things for the country and the nation.”