The Washington Post reported today that the Pentagon is looking to slash its huge contracting workforce by as much as 13 percent.
At present, DoD's contractors comprise 39 percent of its workforce. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's latest
proposal moves to replace many of those contractors with up to 39,000 additional federal employees over the next five years, and 13,000 of them immediately. The move would bring the level of DoD contractors down to 26 percent of the Pentagon's personnel.
Contractors are typically engaged when work assignments are short in duration and have a definitive end to the work (though some would argue otherwise), or when specialists are needed for specific projects and the government does not have the institutional capacity to address these needs. But over the years, contractors have begun to substitute for federal employees altogether, often staying in positions for years as entrenched, on-site contractors. (Present company included.) Managers in government, particularly at DoD where the culture is more inviting to contractors -- some feds treat contractors like unwanted stepchildren -- often find it easier and faster to contract employees than to hire federal workers.
Anyone who has ever applied to a federal job understands the federal employee hiring process, given all the red tape, may take up to nine months from time the initial paperwork is filed to post the job to the time someone is hired. The process deters many top tier would-be feds who take other jobs offered to them well before any federal hiring manager even alerts them they are viable candidates.
In start contrast, contractors may be brought on in a matter of weeks, depending on whether an existing contract vessel is already in place or not. For busy managers needing help quickly, contractors can be a real lifeline, even if costs run slightly higher than federal employees (when benefits are factored in). What's more, contractors are much easier to fire than their federal counterparts.
On the flip side, contractors are often charged with being more patriotic to their wallets than their country. And while it may be true that capitalism drives them to be entrepreneurial, there is little reason to believe, especially given the amount of scandals and blunders involving federal employees and politicians, that contractors are any more or less concerned with the well-being of their country than federal employees.
So while the move to cut contractors from the DoD workforce may drive costs down in the short term and aid in eliminating the perception that contractors are running federal acquisitions at DoD leading to cost overruns, the reality is they are a vital part of the federal workforce that offers an escape route from bureaucratic pitfalls and expensive pension plans. And if the workforce is replaced by federal employees, unlike the contractor community, given union representation and political considerations, an increased DoD federal workforce will be difficult, if not impossible, to reduce in size indefinitely.
BY Andrew B. Einhorn
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