Forget the presidential election (we’re voting Secret Squirrel for President) – there is another debate that continues to divide Washington, D.C. Should you work directly for the federal government or as a federal government contractor? In both cases you’ll be supporting a government mission. In many cases you’ll be working on-site at an agency. Regardless of which position you take, you’ll have to work with individuals on the other side (the other CAC color badge, that is).
The latest NSA breach has many highlighting the pitfalls of contracting out essential government missions. In contrast, other news reports continue to highlight the government’s need for private sector talent. And while the focus is often on the government’s cyber skills gap, increasingly the government is relying on contractors for everything from drone operator positions to intelligence analysis.
The insourcing vs. outsourcing debate wages regularly in Washington. Throughout the last 8 years a ban on public private competition has tended to prevent individuals from crossing back and forth between contract and government positions. Now many in Congress are calling for more competition – to reduce costs and improve services.
Millennial Matters – No Pension, No Problem
In 2015, for the first time, millennials outnumbered baby boomers as the largest segment of the workforce. A RAND study on millennials in the Intelligence Community found that 61 percent of millennials are worried about the state of the world and feel personally responsible to make a difference. That same generation doesn’t necessarily see government as the solution to the problems their generation faces. Millennials want to make a difference – they don’t always see government work as the best place to do it
Millennials are also notorious job hoppers. That negates one of the key benefits of government work – stability. It also negates one of the other critical selling points that government work offers – a pension. In a recent Federal News Radio survey, millennials tended to take a similar view of government service as other demographics. One area where their opinions differed was attitudes toward engagement and motivation.
“The idea of working 30-plus years for a pension, which I’ve paid a substantial amount into, does not motivate me,” one survey respondent in the Federal News Radio survey wrote. “At the end of my career, I don’t want to feel like my biggest legacy is a cleaned-out cubicle.”
Government seems to get that it can’t sell millennials on the 30-year career. It’s looking toward easier on-and-off-ramping options, so employees can take advantage of working for both the public and private sector over the course of a career. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been on the losing end of the competition for cybersecurity talent for the past five years. That’s caused the agency to ask Congress for more say in what kind of compensation it offers, as well as opening up the career track for employees who may not be looking to spend a career in government.
“We’re not looking for 30-year-career employees,” said Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer for DHS, earlier this year. “We’re actually looking for folks that want to come in, they want to get this excellent experience and then they take it to the private sector, and then they come back again.”
It’s All About Ice Cream
I’ll leave it to Congress to apply contract law and establish employment policy, but the reality is there are exciting careers out there whatever path you choose to take. Any steps that make it easier for great talent to explore government jobs, move into the private sector, and then move back into government will put both agencies and employees at an advantage. Whether you work directly for the government or as a contractor will often boil down to one thing – personal preference.
I spent several years as a Department of Army civilian. I wouldn’t have enjoyed doing similar work as a contractor – I liked the benefit of representing the Army and was afforded opportunities I couldn’t have had as a contractor (high pay or workplace flexibility weren’t among the benefits, I’ll note). I have a spouse who has spent his career as a government contractor. He spent a stint in the commercial sector, only to go back to government contracting. As a military blogger I love once aptly described why she cared so much about US Navy issues – ‘we all have our favorite flavor of ice cream.’ Hers was Navy blue, mine was Army green, and for some, the CAC badge might carry a ‘contractor’ indicator.
Regardless of which path you take, you’ll find pros and cons. And like presidential elections, the insourcing vs. outsourcing debate tends to come in cycles. Today’s push for more contract opportunities may be followed by tomorrow’s push to insource. It’s best to take the long-term approach, and take one piece of advice from the millennials – always be ready to make a move.