Every dollar spent by the federal government, whether it’s on paperclips or hypersonic engines, has to be accounted for, and those contracts can be as profitable as they are difficult to write. They also require an extensive corps of professionals, both private and government, to keep the trillion-dollar process moving.
The fact is that the United States is the largest consumer in the world. The federal government alone spent more than $145 billion on goods and services in 2021.
“We do about $4 billion worth of federal contracts here in the state of Ohio,” said Everett M. Woodel Jr., District Manager of the Ohio Small Business Administration. “Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton alone spends $739 million in Ohio, and about 39% … goes directly to small businesses in the state.”
More than five years ago, a Wright-Patterson official reached out to University of Dayton executives for help with a shortage of trained and experienced government contracting and procurement professionals that they say is partly due to an increase in retirements was due.
Dayton, in turn, created a 30-credit-hour master’s program at the School of Law to quickly prepare students for in-demand but little-known careers in public procurement.
“There aren’t many colleges and universities that offer a program like this,” said Julie Edwards, administrator of the University of Dayton’s state contract program. “The baby boomers are leaving, and they’re taking 30 years of experience to a job that can take a good five years to bring someone up to speed.”
The program, which consists of 60 to 70 students, has been entirely online since COVID, but classes are live and interactive, Edwards said. Students are not required to complete the LSAT, but must have at least a bachelor’s degree to be accepted.
The program is based on a partnership with Wright-Patterson’s Air Force Research Laboratory and is taught by working government and military officials as associate professors. And now that the program is online, it involves experts from across the country.
“We are Department of Defense accredited, work with the National Defense Industrial Association as a training partner, and have collaborations and ties with government and the private sector,” Edwards said. “Our courses are all taught by professionals who work in the industry themselves. They know what they’re talking about.”
Students can complete the three semesters in one year, with a maximum of four if they work full-time. There is also an option to pursue a hybrid degree – offered for those who already have a master’s degree and do not wish to work on another degree – and a 12-15 credit path to the completion of a certificate program.
“The program is very flexible because most of the students are professionals,” Edwards said. “We have students in Colorado, we have students in Canada. COVID has shown us that we can work completely online and remotely. It was a great way to open the door nationally because people don’t necessarily have to be here.”
Contracting expertise is in high demand because while selling to the US government and its numerous agencies can be challenging, with the right expertise it is possible for relatively small businesses to win extremely large government contracts.
Edwards recalls a story about “an elegant woman from Newport Beach” who had a contract dismantling decommissioned ships for the US Navy, which is exactly the definition of “grunt work,” she said. Edwards points out that this woman was not the type associated with the hard manual labor of metal scrapping and did not do the actual work, but she was adept at writing the proposal that eventually earned her the multimillion dollar brought in dollar contract.
For every huge, multimillion-dollar contract that goes to a Fortune 500 company like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, there’s a small company selling lightbulbs to the federal government, Edwards notes.
“It’s a very broad spectrum of needs,” said Jason Pickart, president of the Dayton division of the National Contracting Management Association (NCMA). “Writing a proposal for a government contract is no easy task – some companies spend millions, but when working with the government, it’s important to know the language and the laws.”
Pickart said a good government contracts expert can work within the “grey area” when it comes to interpreting what the government needs or wants.
Businesses wishing to work with the government must comply with the Federal Acquisition Regulation System, the primary guide for acquiring goods and services with earmarked funds. However, he points out that this can be interpreted as “possible” unless expressly prohibited. This is where a trained professional comes into play.
Often the government doesn’t know exactly what it wants when it submits the bid, Pickart said. It’s in this gray area where there is tremendous flexibility to negotiate good deals and where a contractor can put together a compelling offer, he said.
Dayton program graduates are in high demand as increased federal spending and government programs drive the use of commercial technology to address energy, broadband and infrastructure build-outs funded by the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“Nobody dreams of becoming a contract broker as an adult because not a lot of people really know about it,” Edwards said. “But it’s a very in-demand job, and our students are either improving their standing with a current employer or increasing their salary elsewhere.”