Meet the Air Force’s contract negotiators

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

A lot of work happens behind-the-scenes in the Air Force. Jobs such as communications, aircraft and vehicle maintenance, and supply management are rarely seen, but have a noticeable impact on the Air Force mission.

One of these unseen jobs in the Air Force has the authority to spend millions of dollars in order to get the mission accomplished – contracting.

Contracting in the Air Force isn’t wearing a hardhat and a tool belt, hammering nails and sawing boards to build a house or structure; it’s done in an office, and entails a slew of paperwork and negotiations.

“Contracting is completely customer service; everything we do is for a customer,” said Ramon Jimenez, the Base Support Flight team lead assigned to the 6th Contracting Squadron. “Any purchase, project or proposition worth more than $3,000 will go through us.”

Projects such as hangar restoration, or building a new facility all go through contracting. Most ideas are created by a customer, such as the 6th Civil Engineer Squadron, then they give their plan to contracting specialists who then write a contract for the work. The contract will be awarded to a business who can provide the best work, for the lowest price.

“Our funds are essentially tax-payer dollars, so we try our hardest to keep costs as low as possible, yet still get the job done correctly,” said Tech. Sgt. Ryan Amos, a contracting officer assigned to the 6th CONS. “Additionally, we prioritize our contracts to be given to small businesses, so that the tax-payer dollars get funneled back through the economy.”

These contracts can take anywhere from 60 days to four years to complete depending on the cost threshold. Every contract created is overseen by multiple contract specialists, administrators and finally signed off by a contract officer. A high-cost project can be seen by as many as 30 different levels of review.

“Trust is a major concern for writing contracts as well as attention to detail; our job can be very tedious,” said Amos. “However, a great thing to see is a project you helped create be made from the ground up.”

During the construction or renovation of a building, a contract specialist who made the project periodically checks on the workers and contractors to see how labor is going.

“I always check on the workers for any project I sign off on,” said Amos. “I want to see if they’re being paid correctly per the regulations laid out in the contract as well as the progress being made.”

Contract specialists new to a base can expect to receive basic administrative contracts that are on-going, explained Jimenez. These can range from government contractors working as physicians to low-cost projects. Both Airmen in the enlisted and officer ranks will be tasked with simple contracts to get on-the-job training. However, Jimenez spoke about a common misconception many people have about contract officers.

“In the Air Force, a second lieutenant can be commissioned as a contract officer; however, they will start the same as an Airman or Airman first class, “explained Jimenez. “A contract officer is a title given through experience with the possession of a warrant, or a certificate allowing a CO a set amount of money he or she can sign off in a contract.

“The title CO is not dependent on your rank, but the amount of experience and trust of the individual.”

The complexity of the job comes from not only the amount of review needed to make a contract, but the regulations that are required.

“We have to abide by the Federal Acquisition Regulation,” said Amos. “It’s a large book that covers every law and regulation that needs to be followed in a contract.”

Contract specialists also follow a FAR created by the Department of Defense, as well as the Air Force.

Despite the amount of behind-the-scenes work, these contract specialists, administrators and officers constantly complete the mission. Without their hard work and negotiations, government jobs drop out, restorations dissolve and tax-payer dollars can’t be funneled back into the economy.

“When people ask me what I do, I can’t tell them I’m the team lead for a contracting base support flight, it wouldn’t make sense,” laughed Jimenez. “But if someone really wants to know what I do, I simply tell them, ‘I buy things.’

Our work takes place behind-the-scenes, but the results can be seen in plain sight.”