The VAAA’s Acquisition Internship School: Developing the Future of Federal Contracting
January 9, 2019
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:
I remember making phone calls, describing our training program, and requesting they host an intern for job rotations. The response was lukewarm. I understood. Hosting an intern meant they would have to take a chance that the intern wouldn’t create additional work in an already challenging and hectic work environment. But we have come a long way since then.
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 INTERNSHIP PROGRAMS
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 Acquisition Intern Program (AIP), and
- The Warriors to Workforce (W2W) Program.
The Acquisition Intern Program (AIP)
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:
For VA, we want our interns to understand their impact. They are responsible for buying and managing the goods and services needed to care for our Veterans. What they do matters and has impact. We never want them to lose sight of that.
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.
The Warriors to Workforce (W2W) Program
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:
[The W2W Program] has put me on a path toward tremendous success. I was able to earn my bachelor’s degree, and I earned my master’s in business administration, and now I’m currently working on my second master’s. If you would have talked to me say five, or six, seven years ago, I would not have imagined that I would be walking across the stage graduating or even having the ability to be part of a career like this.
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:
The battlefield is much different than the office. We recognize that and help [Veterans] transition and grow in this setting. Another thing that helps them greatly is the cohort model that we use. They have built-in support from other Veterans who understand what they are experiencing. They build strong bonds that last well beyond the program.
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:
- The Strategic Acquisition Center (Frederick, Maryland and Fredericksburg, Virginia)–
- Technology Acquisition Center (Texas and New Jersey)–131;
- Network Contracting Office 8 (Florida and Puerto Rico)–97;
- Network Contracting Office 4 (Clarksburg, WV; Pennsylvania and Delaware)–70;
- Network Contracting Office 19 (Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah)–56;
- Network Acquisition Center (Hines, Illinois)–41;
- Network Contracting Office 9 (Tennessee, West Virginia, and Kentucky)–38; and,
- Network Contracting Office 22 (California and Arizona)–36.
Belella remarks on the champions of the AIS internship program:
We have so many champions of our program, it’s hard to name them all, but Director of Contracting Benjamin Iachini in VA’s [Network Contracting Office (NCO)] 4, Director of Contracting Linda Greaves in NCO 9, Associate Executive Director Michele Foster in the Technology Acquisition Center, [Strategic Acquisition Center] Frederick’s Director Efrain Fernandez, and NCO 8’s Deputy Director Dennis “DJ” Bleckley, are some of our most prominent champions, having mentored and hired many interns from our programs.
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.”
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
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 program provides an immediate return on investment. We gain mission-ready contract specialists with a fundamental understanding of the hard, technical skills of the contracting profession and a keen awareness of the soft, interpersonal abilities needed to succeed and contribute to our mission of caring for our nation’s Veterans. These highly capable interns are the future of VA contracting.
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:
By partnering with the AIS internship program, [we] receive interns that are well prepared to execute contracting actions in support of VA’s mission. In addition to being trained in introductory contracting/acquisition principles, AIS interns receive valuable professional development training that lays the foundation for becoming well-rounded acquisition professionals who can thrive in the demanding and challenging area of federal procurement.
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:
The mission demands well-trained, professional contract specialists. With a limited federal government presence in the local area, there are few opportunities to recruit fully trained, experienced contract specialists. The AIS intern programs provide a great alternative to supplement vacancies.
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:
The acquisition field is challenging and the AIS program contains the key ingredients necessary to produce high-performing acquisition professionals—intensive formal classroom training mixed with on-the-job training—while also offering participants a sense of camaraderie within their cohort. It’s an excellent program and one that I’m proud to support.
Iachini says that AIS interns stand out:
They come to us trained. They master textbook knowledge that can be put into practice immediately. They want to work, and they understand the Veteran population and their needs.
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:
The interns that have come to the TAC have worked on a variety of complex and challenging assignments. They have exhibited positive attitudes and shown they are hard-working individuals eager to learn and develop their careers as contracting professionals. AIS interns approach their assignments with a sense of responsibility, professionalism, and dedication. The AIS program teaches valuable critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are evident as they rotate through various contracting teams at the TAC.
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:
In NCO 4, interns support cradle-to-grave contracting efforts. They advise customers, they engage with industry, they efficiently form and execute new contracts, and they actively monitor contract performance to ensure our taxpayers and Veterans get what we pay for. Our interns learn what it means to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ and Veterans’ dollar.
Foster explains rotations at the VA TAC:
During job rotations at the TAC, interns are exposed to a variety of acquisitions, ranging from information technology hardware purchases (commodities) to complex information technology service procurements. On less complex procurements (actions under the simplified acquisition threshold), interns are assigned as the primary contract specialist with a more experienced contract specialist as a mentor/advisor. On more complex procurements, interns assist senior contract specialists with day-to-day activities, meetings, and preparation of documentation. In both scenarios, AIS interns receive practical hands-on training that reinforces principles learned during formal classroom training.
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:
The interns are very professional, eager to learn, and catch on very quickly. They ask great questions, use critical thinking skills to deliver required products, have very good customer service skills, and integrate rapidly in the organization. What makes them stand out to me is their professionalism and eagerness to learn.
WE’VE COME A LONG WAY
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:
Their repeat business underscores the trust and confidence they share in training their interns. We are pleased that so many other federal agencies are utilizing the program to develop acquisition interns for their agencies.
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:
- Serving as team leads and primary contracting officers,
- Competing and being hired as supervisors,
- Obtaining the Certified Federal Contract Manager (CFCM) designation,
- Serving as mentors of new employees and interns, and
- Being recognized by leadership as outstanding performers in their organizations.
“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.
This article first appeared in the © National Contract Management Association’s Contract Management magazine [January 2019 edition].