In an earlier article, I wrote about what I wished I’d known about government contracting before I began my first contracting position – things like timekeeping rules, supervisory structures, and the ups and downs of budget shortfalls and congressional stalemates. This is a follow up, with more of the ups and downs and lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Government contracting has been my life for more than 15 years, and through it all I have learned some valuable lessons I would like to share.
STAY INFORMED AND PLAN AHEAD
Government contracting is the only way non-federal workers can work for government agencies, so there are excellent rewards in being able to do this kind of work. Government contractors are able to work with military (in the case of Department of Defense) and other federal workers and learn from the inside how to support those organizations. For some it can even lead to a government job, but contractors must always be prepared, especially during the option year and recompete of the contract, to find another position in the event their job is eliminated. Having a good relationship with your program manager is one way to keep the discussion open, and also asking questions and making sure you fully understand what is happening. A reputable company may be able to place contractors on another contract, but unfortunately, this is not always the case for smaller firms who don’t have as many contracts to fall back on.
THE CONTRACTOR WORLD IS SMALL
Some contractors will be fortunate and stay on a contract for years, but others won’t have that opportunity, which is why it is important to stay connected to government and contractor colleagues and co-workers. Staying connected is beneficial for numerous reasons, most of all to have referrals and references. The contractor community is relatively small, and you may work with former co-workers again and again on different projects. Make sure you don’t burn any bridges or make bad impressions that can follow you to another contract position. Relationships and networking go a long way and can make a huge difference in your career.
IMPRESSIONS CAN LAST A LONG TIME
There are reasons why everyone is not cut out for government contracting, and a huge reason is impressions. Although everyone has their bad days, government contractors have to be especially careful when dealing with their government customers. One wrong comment, mood, or gesture can potentially ruin their relationship with their supervisor or co-workers. Hiring managers should take care to find the right person, and program managers absolutely must have an open and ongoing dialogue with their teams to be sure the rules are understood. I have worked on contracts where some of the contractors didn’t have what it takes as far as their attitude or ability to interact well enough with the government customer and they put the entire contract in jeopardy. Government contracting requires more than skills and ability to perform tasks. It requires maturity and understanding of the culture and atmosphere of the organization they are supporting. If a contractor continually disregards or ignores cultural and organizational norms, the company that employs the contractor can be negatively impacted and potentially lose the contract. It’s that serious.
CONTRACT CHANGE ORDERS OR AMENDMENTS
One of the most frustrating and frightening aspects of being a contractor is the potential for a contract change order of amendment to the contract. Unfortunately, there isn’t much a contractor can do in this situation, which can result in a role or position being removed or replaced with another. A contract change order is something a program manager should discuss with the contractor as soon as possible so the contractor can find another contract.
FLEXIBILITY AND RESILIENCE
Two of the most important aspects of government contracting are flexibility and resilience. If a person doesn’t have those traits, they won’t succeed as a contractor. Flexibility is essential because the number one rule of government contracting is making the customer feel their needs are being met, and that requires flexibility. Resilience is needed when problems come up, and they will, and contractors have to be able to keep up the pace and get ahead of those problems. Being successful, creative, adaptive, and productive in support of the organization require flexibility and resilience. Flexibility and resilience also come into play when searching for jobs and staying employed.
Stay tuned for follow up articles in this ongoing series. If you have questions or comments about working in government contracting, please leave them in the comments section.