Thursday, September 8, 2016

What I Wish Library School Had Told Me About Government Contracting, by The Beltway Bandit

During my library program, I often heard about classmates’ post-graduation career goals. I remember plans to become public librarians, academic librarians, archivists, anywhere-so-long-as-I-___ librarians, a few corporate librarians, and even sometimes civil servants. What I don't recall, except in occasional references a few professors made to "Beltway bandits," was anyone talking about government contractors. As someone who became a government contractor after graduation, I soon realized I had not learned to ask the right questions for academia but not contracting. This post is my way of helping others benefit from what I learned as a government contractor.

Your Employer May Follow Small Business Rules

There are a lot of players in the contracting game and they vary in size. If your employer has fewer than 50 people, they follow small business labor rules. Seems obvious, but when an interviewer tells you they have employees in 10 different states, they may only mean 20-30 people. Easy to remember at a small historical society, less so at an agency of 5,000 civil servants + contractors.

I have been very lucky that I haven't needed to use FMLA, because that's something my employer doesn't offer as a result of being so small. Additionally, I buy my health insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchange because my employer is a small business located in another region of the country and they did not have the staff or investment to negotiate good coverage or plan options that work in my region.

Advice: Ask. Not "hey, will I get FMLA?" but "So tell me more about ____. How many librarians do you have? What other contracts do you have?”

You Work for Two Different People

You work for your employer. You also work for your agency. At times, your agency will treat you as an outsider. Your employer may not always act in the best interests of your agency. Many contracts also have a subcontractor. My boss and I work for different contractors. It gets a little weird. I might get put on his contract next time or he on mine.

This disconnect is something you will have to live with. From knowing plenty of other contractors, I can say that it's more prevalent at some places and less at others. But it's still there.

Advice: Ask whether you want to do job X or whether you want to work at agency Y. If this job matches the kind of work you want to do, take it. If your motivation is that you really want to work at ____ agency and you think the job's good too, great. If it’s a great job but you’re not keen on the agency, take a step back and ask evaluate how you’ll feel about being slightly outside. If you don't like the job, take 30 steps back. You don't want this unless truly desperate. In which case, I can relate, I'd been on the market for quite a while when I finally got this job.

It's Not in The Contract

If I had a nickel… Contracts thoroughly spell out the work they do and don't include. That awesome new reference service or cool digital project idea you came up with? Sorry, that’s probably outside the contract. Some offer flexibility. Mine's fairly rigid. It protects me from new tasks I’m not getting paid for but it limits me, too. You can hit limitations in any library, but it’s quite painful when everyone agrees with you, you have the resources and even the time to do it, and you’re still told to twiddle your thumbs instead because of The Contract.

Advice: It’s not unreasonable to ask your interviewer to describe what’s covered in the contract, how they handle changes, etc. Or, if nervous, ask whether they've done any special projects recently or what new service excites them.


At this point, I feel compelled to point out that there are upsides to working on a government contract. Many agencies contract most of their library jobs, so if you want to do a particular kind of library work for a particular kind of agency, this may be your only opportunity. Some contractors pay more than the civil service (find them!). Many manage multiple contracts and may be amenable to giving you internal candidate status for a job that comes up at an agency where you'd rather work.

Beyond what I shared above, I have three more pieces of advice for people considering a job in government contracting:
  1. Put some time into research. It can be hard to research the company, so I'd suggest researching contracting in general.
  2. If you've been looking primarily at academic jobs with 10-15 days of sick leave alone, be aware that the contracting world follows corporate norms. 15 days combined sick and vacation is normal. When considering a salary, take this into account. Academic salaries are not comparable, as you have less buffer for illness. Any additional sick time comes out of your salary, and your sick leave may not roll over. Mine doesn’t.
  3. Figure out why you want to work for a government contractor. It won't necessarily get you closer to a civil servant job or make you really a part of that agency. But it may allow you to build skills and gain that experience you really needed coming out of library school—and that's a perfectly good reason.

The Beltway Bandit is an obvious pseudonym, for obvious reasons.

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