Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Contracting world offers plenty of job opportunities

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Do you have an itch to switch to the private sector — either because government does not suit you or because you want to keep working during your federal retirement? If so, check out the federal contracting world.

If you would like to work for a federal contractor, click here. This new website, the brainchild of a former Pentagon personnel official, is designed to help connect job hunters who have federal experience with contractors who want to hire it. Although businesses must pay to post openings on the site, job hunters use the site for free.

Perhaps you would like to be self-employed during your federal retirement because you yearn to be your own boss or because you suspect that your employment prospects will be limited by age discrimination. If so, consider starting your own business — and aiming to land federal contracts.

Threats of sequestration and other budget cuts aside, the federal government is the world’s biggest buyer. Purchases by military and civilian installations total almost $600 billion annually and include products ranging from office supplies to military jets and services ranging from janitorial to multimedia. In short, the government is a major buyer of just about every type of product and service for sale. In addition, the government poses virtually no credit risk and usually pays invoices within 30 days.

Some contracting basics: Most federal purchases worth $3,000 to $150,000 are automatically reserved or set aside for small businesses. Federal purchases worth more than $150,000 are also to be set aside for small business when bids can probably be obtained from at least two responsible small businesses and the contract can be awarded at a fair market price.

In addition, Congress requires 23 percent of federal contracting dollars to be awarded to small businesses. And targeted subgoals are established within this 23 percent: 5 percent for woman-owned small businesses; 5 percent small, disadvantaged businesses; 3 percent for businesses in historically underutilized business zones, known as HUBZones; and 3 percent for service disabled veteran-owned small businesses. Unfortunately, goals are not always met.

Most federal agencies have an Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, which is dedicated to helping small businesses land federal contracts. You may obtain contracting advice from agency OSDBU specialists listed when you click here. The General Services Administration and the Small Business Administration also provide in-person trainings throughout the U.S. and online trainings to help small businesses land federal contracts.

There are many ways for businesses to contract with the government. For example, a business may contract with a single agency. Solicitations for most federal contracts worth more than $25,000 are posted on this website.

Alternatively, a business may land a GSA schedule contract. These long-term, government-wide contracts account for approximately $40 billion a year, or 7 percent of federal procurement spending.

GSA provides online and in-person resources on how to apply for its schedules contracts. In addition, a cottage industry of consultants is devoted to guiding businesses into GSA schedules.

Another option: Businesses may subcontract with federal contractors. By doing so, they avoid the federal bidding process, gain valuable contracting experience and may get their foot in the federal door. The federal government promotes subcontracting by encouraging businesses that win federal contracts larger than $650,000 to subcontract to small, minority- and woman-owned businesses.

In addition, GSA posts subcontracting opportunities on fedbizopps.gov, and SBA promotes business matchmaking events that help small businesses create relationships with federal contractors.

A caveat: If you’re a fed seeking a private-sector job or contracts, consult your agency’s ethics attorney for any “revolving door” restrictions that apply to you. Most restrictions apply to political appointees, senior federal officials and federal procurement professionals.

Seeing is believing: Portfolio offers employers tangible evidence of your skills

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Hiring managers generally are more likely to hire you if they see tangible evidence of your skills rather than if they just read about them in your résumé or hear them described.

Consider accommodating this “seeing is believing” principle into your networking strategy. A case in point: I know a computer mapping specialist who cold-called an Environmental Protection Agency manager to discuss a computer mapping issue that was relevant to both of them. Then, after the specialist kicked off a job search several months later, he again called the EPA manager to tell him how his innovative computer mapping strategy might be useful to EPA. That phone conversation led to a presentation by the mapping expert before the manager, and ultimately to an EPA job.

Also, consider accommodating the “seeing is believing” principle into job interviews by providing to interviewers a “success portfolio” — a collection of materials that validate your skills and reputation.

Package your portfolio in an easy-to-skim folder that has pockets or a binder with dividers. Your portfolio should include copies of your well-formatted resume (instead of your hard-to-read, format-less USAJOBS résumé) and your business card.

Your portfolio may also include:

  • Writing samples, such as reports, articles, newsletters, press releases, press clips or print-outs of presentations that you produced or that cover your projects.
  • Programs from events you organized or conferences that featured your presentations.
  • Explanatory maps, charts and photos.
  • Positive annual evaluations; praising emails from managers or clients; evaluations from trainings or other events you organized; and copies of awards you earned.
  • Relevant academic papers and transcripts.
  • Your reference list and perhaps a written recommendation from a reference.
  • Samples of your online and video work products via print-outs of relevant screen shots and files on a CD, DVD or thumb drive; a list of websites that feature your work; a self-created online portfolio (password protected, if you prefer); or an iPad presentation.

For example, I recently coached a social media expert who bookmarked on her iPad her relevant reader-friendly online contributions to social media sites, and then showed them to her interviewers during her job interview. The result: She got the job. Her interviewers later told me that the iPad presentation together with the applicant’s smiling, engaging manner vaulted her ahead of her competitors, some of whom were more technically qualified for the job.

Some pointers:

If you plan to present an online portfolio during an interview, confirm in advance that you will have an Internet connection. And even if you are assured of such a connection, arrive equipped with a backup plan if unexpected snags kill your connection or if your hardware or software malfunctions.

Position your most impressive pieces first and last in your portfolio. And limit your portfolio to your most relevant highlights that reflect the breadth of your work. Don’t make the mistake of one federal attorney whose success portfolio backfired because, according to his interviewer, it was “fat enough to choke a rhinoceros.”

Give a portfolio to each of your interviewers to keep, if possible. Label and annotate your portfolio to be self-explanatory to managers who may review it after your interview. Identify your contributions to group projects.

Stay ethical. Your portfolio should not reveal any confidential information.