Contract workers with bogus degrees create potential problems for vendors

'In some cases, a degree may be an indicator of past performance but, more often than not, we are now focusing on outcomes,' GSA's David Drabkin says.

Does the recent interest in federal employees' use of questionable educational credentials extend to IT contract workers toiling away in agencies across government?

Companies that provide services to the government also could run into trouble if their employees claim academic degrees that are not as they might appear, said Jim Fontana, a government contracts lawyer with David Brody and Dondershine LLP in Reston, Va.

'It's not uncommon for position descriptions to require degrees from accredited institutions, so a degree from an unaccredited one will not meet the requirements,' Fontana said. 'In the extreme, if it's something that's knowing on the part of the contractor, it could rise to the level of a false statement to the government.'

Another problem arises because companies often bill agencies for a worker's services at a rate reflecting that worker's expertise and education. A person with a doctorate gets billed at a higher rate than someone with a master's or bachelor's degree. So if the doctorate is not from an accredited school, then the agency could demand a refund, a rate reduction or both, Fontana said.

Checking academic credentials is something contractors 'may have paid lip service to in the past,' even though it's not an administrative burden to do so, Fontana said. But recent events may encourage them to take their responsibilities more seriously, he said.

'There are occasions where the government does request a certain level of education for [contract employees] who are going to work on a contract,' said David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy with the General Services Administration. 'It's getting rare, particularly because our focus is changing to performance-based contracting. ... In some cases, a degree may be an indicator of past performance but, more often than not, we are now focusing on outcomes.'

Sensitized to issue

As a result, an agency that learns a contract employee is not credentialed as claimed can choose to overlook it if the performance is what was promised, Drabkin said.

'But now that we're aware of an issue, we'll be more sensitive to it,' he said. 'We'll treat each example on the facts, [then] decide what the appropriate action would be. It's very fact-specific.'

Michael Patrick, executive director of work force recruitment and planning with Northrop Grumman Corp.'s IT group, said the company goes to great lengths to verify applicants' credentials.

'We do a complete background investigation on every person before we allow them to start work, and we don't [start the investigation] until we're ready to extend an offer,' Patrick said. The investigation includes verifying education and employment histories, and doing criminal records and motor vehicle records checks.

When it comes to education, Northrop Grumman looks for recognized schools, and its recruiters question applicants in depth.

'They will tell us if it's not a normal situation,' he said. For instance, 'diploma factories don't have a registrar. They don't have a normal way to verify credentials.'

Sharon Bohlman, a human resources and benefits consultant who also works with the HR Consortium, a coalition of human resources executives from technology companies throughout the Washington area, said consortium members recently discussed the issue of degrees from unaccredited schools. Members' experiences covered the spectrum, with smaller companies'those with fewer than 1,000 employees'less likely to have ever experienced it.
Larger companies, on the other hand, have seen all manner of resume inflation, she said.

The issue of security clearances creates another complication, Bohlman said. Because the need for employees with security clearances'especially at the top-secret level'is great, agencies and companies might choose to turn a blind eye to questionable academic credentials, she said.

'I have to believe there's a ton of that going on,' Bohlman said.

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