By: Debra Kabalkin on November 21st, 2022

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Government Contracts: How to Attract and Retain Key Talent [download + video]


Government contracts can be a lifeline for private companies, offering a stable and reliable source of long-term income. But GovCon work can also pose some unique challenges, especially when it comes to recruitment and retention.

GovCon employers don’t have the same flexibility that their private counterparts enjoy. Often, your team is bound by strict hiring criteria, clearance requirements, and service level agreements. Renegotiating those terms can be difficult, or even impossible.

That’s why it’s so important to get your HR structure right from the moment you bid for a government contract. With the right people and processes in place, you’ll develop a winning team that’s ready to succeed.

Table of contents:
  1. The biggest recruitment challenges for government contractors
  2. Planning for your government contract hiring needs 
  3. How to hire for a government contract
  4. Retention best practices for GovCon teams
  5. Winning government contracts by building the best team

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The biggest recruitment challenges for government contractors

We’re experiencing a hot labor market right now, especially for skilled and specialist positions. As of March 2022, there are almost 12 million vacant positions in the United States, which is more than the number of active job seekers

In the world of public sector hiring, the situation is stark. More than half of government departments report that they don’t receive enough applications from qualified candidates to fill their available positions.

Finding staff is difficult, plus you have to deal with the unique challenges of GovCon work. If you’re building a team for a government contract project, you might run into issues like:

1. Meeting contract criteria

Contract work can often involve a certain amount of negotiation. For example, you might agree to provide a team of contractors who each have specific qualifications and experience. But, when it’s time to fill those roles, you might struggle to find candidates who fit the agreed profile.

In the world of private enterprise, you can try to offer alternatives and agree a compromise with your client. However, when you’re dealing with a government client, they may not be able to renegotiate. If you can’t fulfill the precise terms, you could end up losing the contract.

2. Recruiting and onboarding within tight deadlines

Tender processes are often slow, but things start to move quickly once the government client accepts a bid. If you’re the successful bidder, you might find yourself up against a tight deadline for project commencement.

But recruiting and onboarding people takes time. It takes even longer when you have to go through the complex compliance processes associated with government clients. If you’re not prepared, you may find it impossible to build a team before the project commencement date.

3. Security clearance

Most government contracts require some level of background screening and security clearance. The type of clearance needed depends on the nature of the job. For example, working with the Department of Defense usually means an intense security clearance process.

As an employer, this presents you with two problems. First, you have to factor the clearance process into your recruitment timelines. Secondly, you need to have contingencies if one of your team members fails a security check.

4. Compliance

Government workers are subject to strict provisions under employment law, which can create a substantial compliance overhead. For instance, GovCon employers have to follow the rules regarding Affirmative Action, mandatory drug testing, and anti-kickback rules. There are also state and local regulations such as paid sick leave and paid family leave, overtime, final pay, and other requirements. Regional rules can be a real headache for multi-state employers.

These compliance requirements can be especially confusing if your company has a mix of public and private clients. It means two sets of internal guidelines for your employees, and your HR team will have to help keep track of both.  

5. Retention and engagement

When employees work full-time on government contracts, there’s a risk that they will forget who their real employer is. That’s especially true for on-site workers, who may have little engagement with your organizational culture.

This confusion can make it hard to engage and retain your most valuable team members. That can cause problems down the road—if you lose the government contract, you might also lose some of your best employees.

These are just some of the problems that can emerge if you’re not prepared to be a proactive GovCon employer. Let’s look at some of the steps that will help you build and retain a winning team.

Planning for your government contract hiring needs

GovCon work is all about preparation, and that preparation begins before you’ve even made a bid. Here’s what you need to think about:

1. Connect recruitment to business development

Putting together a great bid is the first step in securing a government contract. Of course, your bid also has to be realistic, especially in regards to hiring questions like how many people you can provide, how quickly you can recruit new staff, and the cost of contracting those staff to a government agency.

Ideally, the business development team should work with your internal recruitment experts to create a bid that is both ambitious and pragmatic. Your recruiters can help with details that might impact on a GovCon bid. For example, contracts covered by Service Contract Act (SCA) or Davis Bacon Act (DBA) require you to provide Health & Welfare Benefits. These additional benefits may affect the pricing on your bid.

2. Understand the hiring market

Private and government employers are all drawing from the same talent pool. That’s why it’s so important for your recruitment team to monitor the state of the general hiring market and understand the challenges you’ll face when expanding your team.

Recruiters should always be keeping track of:

  • In-demand skills: Candidates with these skills will usually have multiple offers
  • Private market hiring activity: If private companies are snapping up talent, that will make it harder to recruit
  • Salary expectations: Your ability to match salaries and benefits will impact your chances of securing top talent
  • Remote work: Remote and hybrid working play an increasingly important role in hiring these days. It’s important to know if candidates are likely to expect remote work and if your client can accommodate such requests.
  • Regional variations: All of the above can vary between cities. It’s important to know the current state of things in the region where you will be fulfilling your contract.

By tracking the hiring market, your recruiters will have a clear idea of how long it might take to fill roles related to the government contract.

3. Create a talent pipeline

Even before you start recruiting, you can begin work on building a talent pipeline. This pipeline will give you access to candidates when you need them so that you can get moving on hiring decisions as soon as possible. Some of the key steps in building this pipeline include:

  • Monitor competitors: Find out what other companies in your area are doing and see if you can use their strategy to your advantage.
  • Incorporate GovCon in your employer brand: Your employer brand includes your website, employment portal, and social media. Try weaving GovCon elements into this branding so you can attract people seeking a role in the public sector.
  • Engage and track candidates: Use your Applicant Tracking System to monitor details that might be relevant to GovCon work, such as current clearance status. You can search your ATS for matching profiles when you need new people.
  • Be prepared to scale: If you secure a large contract, you may need to scale up your recruitment process quickly. Find out if your HR team can handle this or if you need to bring in an external recruitment consultant.

4. Establish internal communication with regular reporting

This preparation work must take place within a dependable structure, in which business development and HR leaders are constantly communicating. Even if there is some integration between these functions, leaders should meet regularly to discuss things like:

  • Target markets: If the company is planning to pursue new opportunities, recruitment should be one of the first teams to know. This gives them time to perform adequate research on the relevant hiring market and create a reliable talent pipeline.
  • Timelines: It’s also essential that the person responsible for recruiting understands the timeline involved. It’s good to hold regular progress updates, as timelines can shift during the bidding process.
  • Bid status: The recruitment leader also needs to stay in the loop about the state of each bid. As each bid progresses, recruitment can take another step in securing the necessary talent.
  • Demand forecasting: All leaders can work together to try to predict the exact number of people the team will need in the coming months. This allows HR to balance the needs of the specific contract with the company’s broader hiring requirements.

When everyone is working from the same playbook, you’re to fulfill a government contract. Now, you face the next challenge building your team.

Dowload your GovCon HR Compliance guide

How to hire for a government contract

You get the call from your government client. Your bid has been approved, and they want your team to start work as soon as possible.

Now comes the hard part: building your team.

Recruiting for a GovCon team is much easier if you’re prepared. Here are some steps you can take to ensure you’re ready from day one to meet your client’s expectations.

1. Define candidate requirements

It’s essential to have absolute clarity about the job requirements. These requirements need to be signed off by your business leaders, your head of recruitment, and the government client. In these requirements, you’ll outline details such as:

  • Qualifications and experience: The precise candidate requirements, especially any must-have qualifications or certifications
  • Clearance level: Details of the clearance level required so that you can focus on candidates that are already cleared or who will be able to pass clearance checks
  • Location: Employees might spend time at the government office, your office, or on the road. In some instances, employees might work remotely.

You’ll also need to consider diversity and inclusion in your client profile and ensure that you’re compliant with any relevant Affirmative Action plans.

2. Bring in contractors to help with recruitment

Hopefully, your recruitment process will be sufficient to bring in the people you need. However, sometimes you may find that your team can’t cope with the scale of the contract or that your hiring process isn’t producing the results you’d hoped for.

Recruitment consultants can help by doing things like:

  • Optimizing your hiring process: An expert recruiter can help to make your hiring process more efficient without compromising on quality
  • Broaden your talent pipeline: Recruiters can usually help you tap into alternative talent pools, giving you access to more high-quality candidates
  • Execute your process: Your recruitment consultant can also carry out the main steps of your hiring process, including candidate screening, interviews, and designing an offer.

If you need a recruitment consultant, it’s better to reach out to them sooner rather than later. Good consultants can get involved in the early planning stages and help you get ready for the challenges ahead.

3. Prioritize revenue-generating roles

Sometimes, no matter how good your hiring process, it’s just not possible to fill every position. When your team finds itself in this situation, the only choice is to prioritize the most important roles and ensure that you fill those ones first.

Prioritization requires careful communication between stakeholders, with a focus on things like:

  • Revenue generation: Which roles are most important for generating income for the company?
  • Business criticality: Which roles are essential for meeting client expectations?
  • Feasibility: Which roles do you have the best chance of filling before commencement?

With the right planning, you can focus on the roles that give you the best chance of success, and then look at tackling the other vacancies further down the line.

4. Integrate new hires into organizational culture

Integration can be tricky, as your new employees must adjust to two new cultures: that of your organization, plus the culture of the government client. In the case of brand new hires, it’s essential to establish a cultural connection so they understand where they truly belong.

You can tackle this challenge in several ways, such as:

  • Celebrate your values: Talk to new hires about your organizational values and strategy, and explain how this government contract fits into your company’s vision. During onboarding, you can host workshops where new hires can discuss ways to live your organization’s values.
  • Include GovCon workers in team activities: Make sure everyone has a chance to join in company activities when possible. This includes work-related activities, such as seminars and professional development, and social activities like parties and get-togethers.
  • Maintain regular communication: Check in regularly with GovCon workers to talk about how things are progressing. Give them a chance to talk about anything that’s on their mind too, so that they know you’re all on the same team. 

On-site GovCon workers tend to develop their own subculture that is a blend of both organizational cultures. That’s fine—as long as their primary bond is with your team.

Retention best practices for GovCon teams

In 2021, employers struggled through The Great Resignation, during which many of their best team members left in search of new opportunities. Employers that retained their top people used sophisticated retention strategies to help keep their team engaged and settled.

But what kind of retention strategy can you use when you’re a GovCon employer? With many of your team members working off-site, it can be hard to monitor their engagement level and identify retention risks.

Here are a few tips to help you retain your best people:

1. Ensure fair treatment across the board

Organizations often run into problems if they work with multiple GovCon clients, or if they have a mix of government and private enterprise projects. Because each of these teams works according to its own rules, some team members may feel that they’re treated less favorably than those working on other projects.

Unfairness is a major retention problem—85% of employees say that they would consider changing jobs if they were treated unfairly. You can mitigate this issue by ensuring that:

  • Individual salaries fit within your organizational salary structure
  • Everyone has access to a generous Total Rewards offering, with benefits that they can access even if they’re working in a different city
  • All employees have a career path, which you support through in-house professional development and advancement opportunities

Fair treatment will help GovCon workers feel like they’re a valued part of your team, which will make them more likely to stay.

2. Empower HR to support everyone

Delivering the kind of fair treatment mentioned above is often easier said than done. Teams can form into silos that don’t communicate, making it harder to compare employee experiences.

HR is the best team to act as an intermediary and ensure everyone feels valued and supported. To build an empowered HR team, you need to:

  • Nominate a HR point of contact for each GovCon team
  • Organize regular meetings between HR and team leaders
  • Educate HR professionals on the demands of working with GovCon teams
  • Bring in expert HR consultants to backfill any skills gaps in your human capital strategy

If you get the HR fundamentals right, you’ll be in an excellent position to build and retain a successful GovCon team.

3. Expand your communication channels

When one of your people is working on a government contract, you want them to feel like they’re still connected to your core team. You can achieve this sense through regular, open communication.

Try to think about what an on-site GovCon worker might need to communicate about. For example, they might need to discuss:

  • Work-related issues: For questions about what they should be doing, they’ll need access to their local team lead, or an experienced colleague.
  • Total Rewards: If they have questions about salary, benefits or other rewards, they will need to know how to contact a HR rep.
  • Policy and compliance: Employees may have queries related to policy, which can include anything from taking a sick day to reporting harassment. They should know exactly who to contact in such circumstances.
  • Team and company news: It’s also to reach out to the employee and include them in important communications, such as team progress and the latest organization news.

Ideally, communication should be as frictionless as possible. You want your off-site workers to communicate as smoothly as people based in your head office.

4. Keep a close eye on engagement

Engagement is usually the first sign that you might have a retention issue. Low engagement might indicate an employee who feels unsettled and is thinking of a change. If you can identify and address this issue early, you will improve your chances of keeping your best people.

With GovCon workers, it’s not always easy to monitor engagement, as they may not have a supervisor who can flag potential issues. Here are some steps you can take to track their engagement:

  • Run regular pulse surveys: A quick pulse survey can help highlight any emerging retention issues. You can also use these surveys to focus on the engagement impact of specific issues, such as remote working or Covid safety programs.
  • Hold one-to-ones: Make sure that each employee gets time to talk about their on-the-job experience and raise any issues. These one-to-ones can be with a manager or a HR rep.
  • Use stay and exit interviews: If you’re seeing retention issues, try using exit interviews to dig into the underlying issues. It’s also good to use stay interviews to find out if people are settled and if there’s anything you can improve.

Remember, there are two aspects to employee engagement here: engagement with the client and engagement with your organization. If there is an issue in either area, you run the risk of losing that employee.

5. Invest in cultural integration

Why do people choose to stay with any employer? Often, it comes down to that employer’s culture. Even if your employees are working at another location, they will still feel loyal to your organization if they feel like they’re part of the culture.

Maintaining a cohesive culture is hard when you’ve got a multi-site team, but there are some things you can do to encourage strong bonds:

  • Celebrate your wins: Everyone likes it when their team wins. Talk to everyone about your organization’s victories and celebrate the people behind those successes.
  • Create spaces to collaborate: Culture depends on communication, which can’t happen if people aren’t connecting with each other. Create opportunities for employees to mingle with other teams. For example, you can organize seminars, town hall meetings, and social events.
  • Lead by example: Culture is heavily informed by the organization’s leadership. If the leaders are open, collaborative and inclusive, the team will also demonstrate those attributes. Encourage your leadership to model positive behavior and reach out to other teams.

Your culture is the glue that holds the team together. With a strong, positive culture, your employees will always feel like they’re part of the family, even when working in another office.

Winning government contracts by building the best team

To succeed in the world of government contracts, you need a winning team. Great teams don't happen by accident—they require careful planning at every stage of your recruiting, onboarding and retention strategy. 

It's easier when you have an expert partner to guide you. Helios HR has been working with government contractors in the greater D.C. area for over 20 years now. We know GovCon, and we know how to succeed. 

Book a no-obligation consultation call with Helios HR today. Let's talk about how we can help you build your winning team.  

government contractor compliance guide