Where’s My Handout?

Posted by Lauren Weiner


When I first started my company, I went to a few small business government contracting conferences to see if I could learn more about how to best go about doing business with the government.  At one of the first conferences I attended, we sat down with Hill staffers—people working directly for the members of Congress sitting on the Small Business committees—to discuss the issues facing small business owners in government contracting firms.


One man stood up and asserted that the small business procurement programs weren’t working.  He said that he owned a small office supply company with a contract to sell supplies to the government agencies, but that he was unable, despite his small business status, to win government customers away from Staples and Office Max.  Someone asked whether his products cost the same as those at larger stores.  In fact, he charged 2 to 3 times as much for the same Post-It notes, but he was still angry that the government was not buying his more expensive supplies because he was a small business.


Now, as a taxpayer, I’m glad that the government isn’t paying 3 times as much for their Post-It notes solely to support small business.  Small businesses do bring a lot to the table.  They are often more nimble, and can provide better customer service or new and unique offerings that large businesses can’t, but there is no added value to anyone in paying a small business 3 times as much for a fungible commodity.  When I heard the Post-It man speak, I dismissed him as a one-off—someone who just didn’t understand the way business worked in the real world.  But I heard the same basic assertion over and over again at all of these conferences.  They all seemed to be some variation on, “I meet the basic qualifications, where’s my handout?” 


In fact, the real role of small businesses programs should be to even the playing field by teaching small businesses how to compete, and providing them access to capital or other required services to decrease the barriers to entry.  The objective is to help to tease out what makes small businesses more attractive, responsive and valuable and to overcome the logistical hurdles in their way.


So why am I talking about this on a blog for professionally-focused military spouses?


I’ve seen some military spouses make the same assertion that the Post-It note man made—that they should be given a job simply for being a military spouse, without regard to whether they bring value beyond their military spouse status.   While employing military spouses is an important goal, this is not and should not be the objective of spouse preference.


Military spouses bring a whole lot to the table, especially in a government job.  They are extremely committed to the government/military mission.  They are stellar at multitasking.  They often have had strong careers prior to joining the military community, and bring a new perspective to entrenched problems.  All of that can, and should, be highlighted by a military spouse in an employment search.


Targeted programs to help military spouses gain a foothold in portable government career fields are a win/win for everyone.  Training in high-demand fields (procurement, accounting/budgeting, etc) that are necessary on every base and in every government agency makes policy sense on a number of levels.  Training HR professionals in the government to read a non-entry level resume with private-sector work experience to see how they might fit into a government function is a cost-effective way to tap into new talent pools.  All of these things, and more, we hope to do through In Gear.


After hearing the Post-It note man and others just like him, I learned a valuable lesson.  To distinguish my firm, I make it a point, when talking to potential government clients or other partner firms, to go through all of the other, more important reasons to hire us over our competitors.  If I bring up our size and ownership at all, it is only to seal the deal (“…and by the way we are a small, women-owned firm”).  I want to make clear that we were better for their needs than our larger competitors—because of our price, our offerings, our more committed workforce, etc—and that was the reason they should hire us.  That they get to check a box in their small business goals is just a bonus in the end.


Likewise, in selling themselves to employers, military spouses need to focus on what they uniquely bring to the table, above and beyond the ability to check a preference box.  They need to show that they’re the best qualified for the job.  They shouldn’t be penalized for gaps in their resume, nor for the expectation that they’ll leave a job after only a year or two.  But neither should they be handed a make-work job or one that they’re not qualified for solely because they’re a military spouse.  Today, more than ever, the government has to be conscious of budget constraints.  Investing in our military spouses to make them effective hires as they support their military member is smart policy, and really what I believe most military spouses desire.

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