The true test of training is its impact upon an organization — often referred to as “return on investment” (ROI). For the federal government, this is the extent to which the training impacts performance or enhances the ability of an organization to meet its mission. It can be an elusive metric to measure.
For the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), one of the key indicators of ROI from the VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA) Acquisition Internship School (AIS) is whether stakeholders want to participate and partner in the programs the AIS offers. Stakeholders commit a position, time, and energy with the promise that in return, they will get a highly trained employee qualified to perform the job, adding bench strength and value to their organization.
When the VAAA launched the AIS in 2008, it initially faced an uphill climb. According to AIS Vice-Chancellor Stephanie Belella:
The number of VA contracting offices willing to partner with and support VAAA interns has grown from one in 2008 to 122 in 2018, and the number of partnerships with other government agencies increases each year. “We can’t turn them out quick enough,” Belella said.
The AIS trains and develops the next generation of acquisition professionals for VA and other government agencies through a progression of two internship tracks:
The AIP was created as a succession-planning program to recapitalize the acquisition workforce—developing certified acquisition professionals and trusted business advisors who possess the technical, leadership, and communication skills to support the acquisition mission and ensure maximization of every contracted dollar spent.
The AIP is different from traditional intern programs. It takes a holistic approach to training. In addition to teaching the technical skills, interns also learn the soft skills—like leadership and communication—that create successful careers. Additionally, interns conduct mission service projects to help them learn project management and connect with the federal mission they are serving.
As Belella explains:
The experiential program includes classroom training, but also includes skill-building where interns have the opportunity to practice what they learned in the classroom. Throughout the program, they go on job rotations where they have an opportunity to apply what they learned under mentorship of an experienced contracting officer.
Building on the success of the AIP, the AIS launched another intern track aimed at hiring returning wounded Veterans, providing them with a career path in federal contracting. When the troop drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan began in 2012, Veteran unemployment—especially among those returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom—was high. In response, VA’s former Executive Director for Acquisition and Logistics proposed creating a new track that would hire, transition, and train returning wounded Veterans as contract specialists in VA. The W2W Program is intended for returning Veterans with a service-connected disability and little to no post high-school education.
“Many of these Veterans intended for the military to be their career,” said W2W Program Manager David Sella, “but it was cut short due to injury. Then they come home and wonder what they will do next.”
The W2W Program focuses on transitioning Veterans and helping them obtain the 24 college-level business credits required for the contract specialist career field through a local university using their VA education benefits. Veterans are hired for the resident W2W Program at the VAAA in Frederick, Maryland, and after successful completion, they transition into the two-year AIP where they attend training and then go to VA acquisition office job sites for their on-the-job training (OJT) and consideration for permanent placement.
The program has been incredibly successful. Former W2W intern Anthony Hawley is now a supervisory contract specialist for VA’s Veterans Health Administration. According to Hawley:
Veterans hired into the W2W Program have little to no post-high school education. It can be daunting for some of them to think about taking college courses, yet many are continuing on to get their bachelor’s degree. Some, like Hawley, have even received or are pursuing master’s degrees.
The W2W Program track is all-Veteran, but the traditional AIP track has heavy Veteran representation as well—at more than 75%. At VA, Veterans have a close connection with the mission of serving Veterans. It allows them to continue to serve. “Looking at the VA mission, it gave me the opportunity to give back, like a continuation of my active duty,” said a former W2W intern who is now a contract specialist. “It’s very rewarding.”
There are a number of factors that make the W2W Program so successful. One notable factor is the focus on transition support. As Sella explains:
Both programs have been very successful. To date, VAAA has trained 440 AIP interns, 200 W2W Veteran interns have been hired, and 100% of the graduates of both programs have been placed in final jobs. AIS graduates now comprise more than 10% of VA’s acquisition workforce.
VA facilities across the nation have partnered with VAAA interns, but there are several sites that have mentored and hired large numbers, including:
Belella remarks on the champions of the AIS internship program:
In fact, Iachini hired 33% of the inaugural W2W cohort in NCO 4, which supports Pennsylvania and Delaware for the Veterans Health Administration.
“They are all such strong supporters and advocates for developing and hiring VAAA interns,” Belella said. “We are successful because of the support of our stakeholders.”
The program teaches technical skills in the classroom and skill-building sessions, then sends interns to a field facility to put those skills into practice. In terms of the ROI received, Iachini remarked:
The holistic training program is designed to accelerate the learning curve, allowing the intern to translate theory, fundamentals, and concepts to practical application. The Associate Executive Director of the VA Technology Acquisition Center (TAC), Michele Foster, had this to say:
The holistic model allows interns to apply theoretical concepts in a simulated environment in a learning laboratory that includes structured business cases; hands on, real-life-scenario-based exercises; detailed research-based projects; simulations; and role play. Practical activities prepare and equip interns to perform successfully in their job rotations and after program graduation.
VA’s West Palm Beach Services and Commodities Contracts Team is one of AIS’ stakeholders. They award and administer contracts for a very wide range of goods and services, using many different types of contract vehicles to fulfill service requirements. According to Christopher Murphy, the team’s Supervisory Contract Specialist:
VA TAC’s Foster, who started her career in the federal government as an Army Materiel Command intern, said she has really embraced the opportunity to participate with AIS because she believes intern programs are invaluable in building a strong future workforce. As she related:
Iachini says that AIS interns stand out:
AIS interns do real work, which enables them to apply what they have learned and provides bench strength in support of the acquisition workforce. VA TAC’s Foster says that her experience with AIS interns has been nothing short of outstanding:
Stakeholders immerse the interns in work right away. Depending on their skill level and where they are in the educational process, interns can start with contract closeout activities, help clear undelivered orders, meet with integrated product teams (IPTs), learn about pre-procurement request activities, help with contract administration, or act as a contract specialist—aiding the contracting officer in award activities. They attend contract review board meetings, gain advice from general counsel and legal technical experts, and help leadership on special projects. The interns are provided with a mentor who monitors their activities, advises them while on site, and assists the AIP with orchestrating a complete training program.
The stakeholders work to familiarize the interns with all their processes, so interns return to the VAAA with practical knowledge. Some rotations have a local scope, while other rotations, like the National Contract Service or National Acquisition Center, have a national scope. According to Iachini:
Foster explains rotations at the VA TAC:
Former interns have cited the ability to work in real-time with customers throughout the acquisition process, from requirements refinement to post-award administration, as a memorable and rewarding experience during their on-the-job training blocks. As SAC-Frederick Director Fernandez says:
Belella says the program has come a long way since it began in 2008. “Over time, we have proven our value and we are thankful to have so much support from our VA contracting offices,” she said.
Recognizing the value of the program, six other government agencies have participated. However, as Belella relates, what is more telling than the numbers participating are the number of repeat customers:
Such repeat customers include the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Department of Defense (DOD). All these agencies recognize the value of the programs—their interns return to their host organizations for OJT assignments.
VAAA graduates have achieved a lot. To date, graduates have self-reported achieving certifications, warrants (Level I, II, III combined), and leadership positions. Trends indicate that the graduates are consistently achieving the following:
“We are really proud of our graduates and all they achieve,” remarked Belella.
To date, eight cohorts completed the W2W Program. Upon completion of the W2W Program, interns matriculate to the AIP for almost two years of holistic and technical training. The AIP provides the training required for the first two levels of the Federal Acquisition Certifications in Contracting (FAC-C). To date, 13 cohorts graduated from AIP and work in contracting offices around the country in the VA as well as other government agencies—including NIH, GSA, and DOD. There are currently two active AIP cohorts and three active W2W cohorts of Veterans attending the programs.
While experiences and activities differ in each office, the overwhelming response is a positive one, and all agree that this program generates the future of federal contracting.
I see the hard work and dedication of our staff and interns every day and am proud to be part of such an innovative and important program. I am honored to work with VA’s leaders to train and develop our acquisition workforce. We’re making a difference and that is very rewarding.
For more information on the VAAA and the AIS, visit www.acquisitionacademy.va.gov. CM
Acquisition Internship School Vice-Chancellor Stephanie Belella and VAAA Public Affairs Specialist Laura Edwards contributed to this article.