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Tips for navigating federal contract set-asides

Navigating the world of federal contracts is no small task, but add to the challenge having to seek out small business and women-owned business set-asides, and it becomes difficult.

Contract specialists from several federal agencies shared tips and advice to earning these awards at a ChallengeHer event Wednesday, and stressed that now, heading into the fourth quarter, is the perfect time to be on the lookout for contracting opportunities.

“It’s a good time to be in this conference, during the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, since this is when we’re going to see a lot of upcoming opportunities,” said Ivette Jorge, alternate small-business specialist with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “The fourth quarter is when we have to spend our money.”

And there is a lot of it to go around, even for groups with set-asides of reserved funding, such as small businesses and women-owned businesses. Faye Esaias, director of the small-business division at SPAWAR, said this Navy command alone awarded $5.5 billion in contracts last year.

From Oct. 1 through July 16, SPAWAR awarded about $2.9 billion in contracts to small businesses, of which $173 million went to women-owned small businesses. Last year, 5,000 awards were done through Simplified Acquisition actions, which are typically reserved for contracts under $150,000.

Esaias said knowing who you’re selling your product or service to is important, especially when it comes to searching for proposals.

“One of my recommendations … is that you really need to understand who buys your product or service,” she said. “You can spend hours on FedBizOpps — and it’s all very good information — but if you know that SPAWAR buys your product or service, then that’s the benefit of going there and registering on Ecommerce,” SPAWAR’s specific site for solicitations and applications, as opposed to the general site for all federal contract work.

Mary Spencer, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s small-business program, said though the Corps functions across several different agencies and military bases locally, women tend to be underrepresented in its contracts because much of the work is construction-based.

To change that, she said she is pushing to stand up a women-owned set-aside under the new Single Award Task Order Contract (SATOC) system at Edwards Air Force Base for services such as roofing, electrical or HVAC work alone, instead of encompassing all of that under a Multiple Award Task Oder Contract.

She said in the first nine months of the year, the Army Corps of Engineers has obligated $180 million, of which $132 million has gone to small businesses and $32 million to women-owned small businesses.

Spencer’s advice to anyone seeking contract work with the federal government is to ensure that past contracting agencies give you an evaluation which you can add to your resume of work. The review is required of some agencies, including the Department of Defense.

Other advice included maintaining a current entry in the Dynamic Small Business Search site, listing any and all past work done, even from a private organization, and knowing your North American Industry Classification System Codes when going to meet with a small-business specialist.

“Any experience, any references, input it into the Dynamic Small Business Search,” Jorge said. “When I worked as a contracting officer, this was my No. 1 search engine to find small-business contractors. So yes, even if it’s cleaning the streets by your house, put it there because that is past performance, that is experience.”

Spencer agreed, noting that the System for Award Management site doesn’t have a mechanism for listing past performance, which makes the DSBS particularly useful.

Jorge said bringing your NAICS Codes to a meeting with a small-business specialist allows them to speed the process by researching and finding opportunities right then and there.

Spencer also strongly encouraged women-owned and small businesses to apply for Sources Sought listings, which indicates interest in a project and is used to determine if a set-aside would work for a certain project.

“We advertised for work at the Navy hospital at Camp Pendleton because we wanted to do it as a small-business set-aside, so we advertised it as Sources Sought,” Spencer said.

“No one responded — maybe three or four people, including two or three small businesses. So it will be going small-business set-aside, but respond to Sources Sought!”

Melanie Angle, a sales executive at Siemens, also spoke on the panel sponsored by Women Impacting Public Policy, the U.S. Small Business Association and American Express Open.

She said her company looks for opportunities to partner with women-owned small businesses on projects where Siemens can lend their expertise, and encouraged interested parties to get in touch with their local representative to discuss ways of collaborating.

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