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Language Matters – DOD’s Education Requirement Revision for Contracting Officers

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

In the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Department of Defense remove the requirement for 24 semester credit hours for specified courses of study, and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense took action this past September. This is an overdue change since requiring specific coursework in certain business-related fields cannot be said to have improved the business of federal contracting. The most important pre-requisite skill required of a Contracting Officer (KO) has less to do with business (after all….business rules and methods can be learned) but more to do with capabilities requiring high levels of reading comprehension.

Where did this initial requirement come from?

As with many contemporary federal contracting initiatives, this has its roots within the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

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In 41 U.S.C. 433 on the Acquisition Workforce Congress required that each executive agency, in coordination with the Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy (then under the leadership of Administrator Steve Kelmen), establish policies and procedures, to include education and training, of the acquisition workforce of the agency. This was a government-wide extension of the requirement instituted by the Department of Defense in 1990 (10 U.S. Code § 1724). Both were aspects of the larger “Reinventing Government” initiative that was the focus of reform effort under the Clinton-Gore Administration as they sought to create a less expensive and more efficient government. As a response, and in fulfillment of the legislations, OPM released a standard by which people would qualify for eligibility to become an 1102 (or federal contracting officer).

It is interesting to note that the legislation did not specify the 24 semester credit hours of business-related coursework for eligibility to be a federal contracting officer. That requirement appears to be assumed by those administering this via policy within the executive branch. The thought process used was likely to be along the line of “in order for the government to make better business decisions, business-related coursework would most equip federal personnel to accomplish this goal.” Not an unreasonable position…but in hindsight totally wrong. Why? It assumed that federal contracting is conducted through the language of business, but instead it is conducted through the language of law, policy, and regulation. The question then becomes which educational foundation best equips potential candidates for federal employment for a job that emphasizes reading comprehension? The likely answer is none of them, or all of them, as you can find capable candidates with this skill in a number of academic fields.

Healthy Skepticism

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You doubt the premise? That’s OK…let’s see if I can convince you through a short exercise. Can you identify the subject, verb, and direct object in the following samples taken directly from the contracting field? After all, an understanding of grammar is the foundation of reading comprehension. Here is a clause taken from the Federal Acquisition Regulations:


(a) The Government authorizes and consents to all use and manufacture, in performing this contract or any subcontract at any tier, of any invention described in and covered by a United States patent—

(1) Embodied in the structure or composition of any article the delivery of which is accepted by the Government under this contract; or

(2) Used in machinery, tools, or methods whose use necessarily results from compliance by the Contractor or a subcontractor with (i) specifications or written provisions forming a part of this contract or (ii) specific written instructions given by the Contracting Officer directing the manner of performance. The entire liability to the Government for infringement of a United States patent shall be determined solely by the provisions of the indemnity clause, if any, included in this contract or any subcontract hereunder (including any lower-tier subcontract), and the Government assumes liability for all other infringement to the extent of the authorization and consent hereinabove granted.”

How about this one, also taken from the FAR:

“If an emergency or unanticipated event interrupts normal Government processes so that proposals cannot be received at the office designated for receipt of proposals by the exact time specified in the solicitation, and urgent Government requirements preclude amendment of the solicitation, the time specified for receipt of proposals will be deemed to be extended to the same time of day specified in the solicitation on the first work day on which normal Government processes resume.”

As you can see above, and as I argue, a federal contracting officer needs to be steeped in understanding (not memorizing), with clarity, the language of government, which is the language of law and regulation. The question then becomes, where do I find young candidates who are up to the task of being able to navigate this in a productive way for mission execution? What college courses or programs attract students who are capable of making sense of the arcane?

Best Education?

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There is no known data set that would answer this questions directly, but we can see evidence that some disciplines do better at verbal reasoning than others. For example look at this breakdown on how well certain disciplines (Social Science, Art & Humanities, Business, Education, and Other) score on the GRE (a common graduate exam taken by undergraduates seeking to further their education for an advanced degree). Business Majors fared worse than practically every other discipline in verbal reasoning. In fact the only majors that averaged a lower verbal reasoning score than Business majors (149-151) were those majoring in Early Childhood Education (147) or Special Education (148).

What is as interesting is that the quantitative reasoning is not attributably better for business majors as the others, and the analytic writing results were similar to the verbal reasoning results. This could lead one to conclude that students who major in business are less qualified than other majors at performing linguistic and quantitative tasks as measured by this standardized exam.

Other studies and data aggregates appear to show similar results. For example when looking at the results from the GMAT, the standard exam for entry into graduate business programs, this breakdown shows that the track record for certain business disciplines are mixed at best. Others that focused on the LSAT (the standard exam that undergraduates take to enter law school) results that show the highest scores come from classics majors, policy studies majors, international relations/studies, art history, philosophy, and government before the first business-related course/major is identified. Among the lowest average scores (by a considerable margin): marketing, business management, and business administration.

So what?

John Krieger of Defense Acquisition University (and an instruction for the FAR Bootcamp…a legendary course developed by a legendary acquisition leader and practitioner) wrote about this topic in 2007 (Krieger, John. 2007 Professionalism in the acquisition contracting workforce: have we gone too far? The Free Library (September, 1), Professionalism in the acquisition contracting workforce: have we gone...-a0171400933 (accessed September 28 2020)). There he argues that the government has issues attracting (and keeping) candidates to the contracting officer job series, and therefore the 24 semester hour credit requirement should be eliminated in order to expand the pool of candidates. The argument is less convincing as it is driven by the expediency of needing people to fill the roles, rather than the competencies required of the people for the position. He argues, rightfully so, that these are not requirements that are applied to the private sector acquisition teams where diversity of experience is valued over degree and courses.

If this policy were in affect earlier, some of the greatest practitioners in federal contracting may not have even entered the field. History, political science, literature, and philosophy were the typical studies taken by some of the best and brightest to have ever entered government as a contracting officer. Talk to leaders in the field who have seen contracting evolve from the 1970’s and 1980’s and you will find that they would not be considered to even enter the practice today. It was a policy based on a loose and faulty assumption, and that is OK. After all, it takes strength to admit when something is wrong with a particular path chosen, or had not worked out according to the initial plan. Insanity would be continuing along the path when there is little to no evidence to support your position. So don’t be surprised if the FAR Council once again takes DOD’s lead and adjusts the policy for the entire federal government, not just DOD. For contracting commands, that would not be such a bad thing.

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