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Navigating the challenges in government contracting

The Aston Carter thought leadership series examines strategies for navigating the finance and accounting staffing labor market.

The United States government increasingly relies on contract workers. Although overall government hiring has remained relatively flat for decades, the number of federal contract workers increased from 3 million in 1996 to 4.1 million in 2017 and now accounts for approximately 40 percent of the federal workforce.

The agency with the largest number of contractors? Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the Department of Defense, with an FY2020 budget of $718.3 billion.

Government contractors looking for finance and accounting staffing for defense-related projects operate in a complex environment. Is the work on the corporate side — for the company itself — or the program side, working directly with a government agency or branch of the military? Who has the hiring authority, the company or the government partner? What is the timing, and what is the contract renewal or end date?

Add the tight labor market, and the complexity ratchets up another notch.

Aston Carter Business Development Manager Connor Faust, who specializes in government contract placements in the Washington, D.C. area, shares insights into this challenging sector.

A Tight Hiring Market Within a Tight Market

Just how competitive is the current market?

For the positions that Faust fills most often — cost analyst, financial analyst and budget analyst — the answer is “very.”

“Based on the programs that we're working with, I can confidently estimate that the unemployment rate for qualified candidates is well below 0.5 percent,” says Faust. “That means you have to strategically decide how you are going to recruit, knowing that just about everybody you want is already working.”

In the rare instances where experienced candidates are unemployed and actively seeking work, there’s usually an explanation for their availability. Faust cites issues surrounding clearance and a dynamic work environment as major disqualifiers.

“They either don't have an active clearance or there’s a red flag on their clearance,” he explains, “Or they decided to leave the government space and are trying to get back in, which is almost impossible, because the systems are constantly changing.”

If the overwhelming majority of qualified candidates are already working, it stands to reason that conventional, passive tactics won’t meet a contractor’s hiring needs.

Proactively Engaging the Passive Job Seeker

Success in this sector requires engaging those who are currently employed, understanding their career goals and presenting them with the right opportunity at the right time.

“The only way we can work in this space is if we're proactively talking to passive candidates and finding out if there’s something they want professionally that they don’t have where they are,” explains Faust. “Ultimately, we want to find a position or a company or a program that fills that need for them.”

Because nothing is guaranteed in government contracting — contracts may not be renewed, and who knows when the next furlough will be — the candidates Faust interacts with are recruited on an almost daily basis. And virtually all of them are open to hearing about new opportunities.

He elaborates: “We’ll call and say, ‘I realize you're probably happy where you are, but we’re working on this position and came across your LinkedIn profile. We’re really impressed with your background. Any chance you're interested in a conversation about what we can offer you?’"

Even if the candidate isn’t immediately interested, the outreach can pay off in other ways. Given the volatility in the space, the prospect may know of a colleague who was recently let go or whose project is about to end. Or, they may ask for a follow up call in a year, when their own contract is closer to renewal.

Another takeaway: Large government integrators should know that employees are open to moving. Competitive salaries, a positive work environment and opportunities for professional advancement should be a part of every company’s recruitment and retention strategy.

Matching Candidates with Projects

Having a comprehensive knowledge of what skills a project will require and knowing where to find the candidates who have those skills is a key advantage for Faust. For example, experience with a specific software is often a must-have for the government agency.

Faust cites the Army’s exclusive use of Automated Cost Estimating Integrated Tools (ACEIT) software as an example. By tracking who is using ACEIT, he is able to identify candidates who can step right into a project.

Faust also leverages the fact that Aston Carter is a division of Aerotek, with three decades of experience in providing staffing support and services to the government and major government subcontractors.

“Because of their size, some of these companies can be hard to navigate through,” says Faust. “The Aerotek Government Services team is always on hand to provide guidance.”

Timing is Everything

Knowing the hiring cycles is another key to success in the government space.

Faust explains, “With the government’s fiscal year ending in September, audit preparation starts in the summer and continues through the winter. Award season is generally from January to May, so our Q2 and Q3 are big hiring times for government integrators.”

Regulation and compliance concerns also impact the hiring cycle. With the deadline for implementation of new accounting regulations, there’s been an uptick in demand for candidates with relevant experience.

On the program side, a major driver is contract length and budget. If a contract is up for renewal, the contractor needs to strategically determine the best use of any remaining project funds. Does it make sense to increase staffing, or pay overtime? If an option year is approaching, is the government agency — the end customer — satisfied?

“In some of these situations, government integrators can be desperate,” Faust observes. “They realize it’s an option year, their customer isn’t happy, and they need to hire more people to have a chance to keep the work.”

He stresses that the hiring often has to happen fast. “In this particular industry, timing is everything.”

What the Future Holds

For the most part the future will look like the present, with an extremely low unemployment rate and a significant number of open positions that need to be filled within a tight timeframe.

Faust does expect to see more flexibility with upfront staffing requirements. If a project requires 100 budget analyst roles, it may be feasible to fill 50 positions and negotiate an extended deadline for the rest. He is also seeing more contingent postings, with positions offered contingent upon the contractor successfully securing the contract.

But no trend will diminish the advantages of working with a staffing partner who has an insider’s knowledge of the industry.

If your business could benefit from consultation about how to meet your government contract staffing needs, contact Aston Carter now.