There is a divide within the intelligence community, if not federal service as a whole. Not a bad divide, but there is a bit of a “us and them” mentality on both sides. I recall years ago in an agency newsletter seeing a government employee write, “I saw a contractor using the barber shop. Are they allowed to do that?” Things like that emphasize differences and can be detrimental to a focused pursuit of the mission.

5 Reasons to Pick the Civilian Life

While there are pros and cons to being either a contractor or a government employee, sometimes, it’s helpful to take a deep dive into why many pick one option over the other.

1. Job Security

It can be difficult to get hired as a government employee. There are quotas, limits, and budget constraints. Depending on budgets, world events, and cycles, at times, it is a little easier to get hired by a federal government agency or department than at other times. However, in general, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get hired and join an agency as a civilian. The nice thing about a federal job is that it comes with a much higher level of job security than is “enjoyed” by the contractor workforce. When contracts change primes, get cancelled, or go through funding cuts, the government employee does not have to find a new job or take a pay cut. If you are a government employee and don’t like change, this is a huge advantage and a very nice benefit.

As a contractor, your company can win a recompete of your current contract. You may think, “Great! I can keep working this mission and doing what I love.” Then you find out that your company won the contract at much lower rates, so if you want to stay, you have to take a pay cut. This kind of thing happens all of the time, and government employees watch it happen, wanting no part of that kind of life.

It is not just contract changes where job security is beneficial. When the federal government is shutdown due to lack of a budget or failure to raise the debt ceiling, government workers get sent home. While this process leads to uncertainty, typically, every budget in recent history (going back the last 30 years as I recall) included complete payment for the government workers who were furloughed.

Government employee who do decent work, will typically have a job until retirement. Job security is a great benefit. Contractors are often at the pleasure of the Contracting Officer (CO). If the CO wants it, any contractor can be removed, never to return, in a surprisingly short period of time. While poor performance from a government employee is handled in at a slower pace, poor performing contractors are much easier to deal with. It does not happen a lot, but when it does happen, it is quick and over with.

2. Prestige and sense of ownership

As a government worker for an agency or government department, this is YOUR agency and YOUR mission. Contractors will help you to achieve your mission, but it is your mission. Contractors will come and go. You and your fellow government employees safeguard the missions, departments, and agencies. Pride, ownership, and a sense of accomplishment is well deserved by our government workers. As a contractor, I can also take pride in my agency’s mission and accomplishments and my contributions, but I am a hired gun, performing and delivering. I’ll wear an agency shirt and sport an agency coffee cup and umbrella. I will do my utmost to perform at a high level and help my contract to achieve goals. This is as close as we contractors get to come to owning the mission.

3. Decisions are Made Here

As a government employee, you get to call that shots. You decide how to best achieve mission goals, and then you make sure it happens. If you are low enough on the totem pole, maybe you may not call any shots. However, you can still see where one day, if you work hard, YOU will be the one calling the shots. I have been in the military, and I have been a contractor since the ‘80’s. I can and have offered up ideas, even award-winning ideas that advanced missions, capabilities, and agencies. But I had to give those ideas to a government employee who then decided whether or not to pursue them, decided how to execute them, oversaw the execution, and was awarded at completion. I know my place as a contractor, so this is not at all a complaint. I have put this here so that you can see the difference. My idea was someone else’s opportunity. It’s just the way it is.

As contractors, we are not the mission owners. We are contributors. The more you contribute in terms of job performance and ideas, the more valuable you are as a contractor. If you want to be responsible, to own the mission, you have to be in the military or a government employee. As a contractor, you can contribute, but you don’t make the decisions.

As someone who cares about the mission, this is an area that could possibly interest me. Fortunately, many of us contractors do get to make decisions – just not on the mission side. We are involved in business decisions, day in and day out.

4. No Need to Show a Profit

If a business is to succeed, and contracting is a business, we have to be profitable. We have to bring in more money than we expend. If you don’t or can’t, then you will not be in business. On the government side, you have to show where you used your budget wisely and effectively. You defend your budget from other missions and departments, and you remain prepared to tell senior management just what else you could do if your budget was increased.

5. Working Long Hours

Some of my favorite people are and have been government employees who retain a mission-first outlook and who, as a result, put in long hours to make sure that the mission is taken care of. Contractors can put in long hours if the contract allows them to do so, but we will get paid to put in those extra hours. It is also usually for a short period of time, like while the contract is under-manned. I know government employees who are dedicated to the mission to the extent that long hours are the norm. Being responsible for the mission makes the dedicated government employee put those long hours in. We should all be grateful that these dedicated individuals are still looking out for their missions, departments, and agencies.

Mission Focus REduces the Differences

The absolute best missions to work on are those where little difference is seen between government and contractor personnel. The reason for this is because the focus is on the mission, not who is making what money, who gets to tell someone else what to do, who’s department is bigger or has more budget, and so on. Yes, there are differences between being a government employee and a contractor. Those differences can disappear as long as the mission is the focus. It takes both of us to be successful. Focus on the mission and everything else will take care of itself.

Related News

Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.