Hiring Our Heroes: Filling the Acquisition Workforce Pipeline
December 1, 2013
From the Fall/Winter 2013-14, People Science pgs 24-30
On several occasions, throughout the spring and summer of 2013, we visited with and interviewed the Veteran Afffairs Acquisition Academy’s Chancellor Melissa Starinsky, Program Management School Vice-Chancellor Richard Garrison and Acquisition Internship School Vice-Chancellor Joanne Choy. We were fortunate to tour the facility and learn how the Chancellor and her team are developing more government buying professionals to a higher standard and at lower costs.
Imagine being responsible for $17 billion in annual spending in a government department of more than 300,000 employees serving more than 22 million Veterans. With more than 32,000 acquisition professionals in the VA alone, the complexities of purchasing are enormous and the opportunities for both success and misfortune are omnipresent.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the second largest U.S. government cabinet level agency. It comprises the Veterans Health Administration, which consists of 151 medical centers, more than 800 community-based outpatient clinics and nearly 300 vet centers. It is the nation’s largest integrated healthcare system. The VA also administers the Veterans Benefits Administration, which provides educational benefits of $13 billion annually, as well as compensation, pension, and home loan assistance; and the National Cemetery Administration, which administers the country’s largest cemetery system with 131 VA national cemeteries.
More Money but Better Spending
In an era of intense scrutiny over all government spending, very few agencies are seeing their budgets grow, the VA is among the exceptions. Yet eventhough its spending may be increasing,the way it spends is being managed more carefully than ever.
In 2008, the VA launched its Acquisition Academy (VAAA) to improve the performance of the department’s acquisition workforce. And while the academy maintains a state of the art physical presence of 80,000 square feet in Frederick, Maryland (for those courses that are best suited for face-to-face instruction) its impact and footprint is greatly amplified by its approach to blended and distance learning. This approach combines residency periods with on-the-job training requirements to produce new acquisition professionals in two years. The VAAA approach reduces learner’s time away from the office, decreases the cost of training and travel expenses and allows the academy to train more people at an even higher standard – a genuine win-win for all concerned.
Since its launch in 2008, the VAAA has delivered more than 38,000 seats of training to acquisition and program management professionals in the VA as well as employees from nine other government agencies. Through a determined push for economies of scale and by using blended and distance learning techniques,the VAAA is satisfying the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) principles of “minimizing administrative operating costs” and reducing the costs of acquisition training. More than that, however, the VAAA’s innovative methods are engaging leaders throughout the VA and across the federal government by making them partners in the learning, to effectuate real improvements in how the federal acquisition workforce performs and how the system works.
“We should be able to tell a compelling story for every tax-payer dollar we spend, and any 8th grader should be able to understand it.”
People Science: Melissa, you’ve only been here a few months as the Chancellor but the VAAA has been around for five years, what has changed since 2008?
Melissa Starinsky (MS): Well, we now have five schools, – the Program Management, Contracting Professional, Supply Chain Management, and Facilities Management schools – up and running compared to just the one school, our flagship program, the Acquisition Internship School. Specific to our Acquisition Internship School though, our approach has evolved and changed quite a bit since 2008. We’ve created two separate intern tracks now; our regular intern track which is two years and our Warriors to Workforce (W2W) intern track which is three years.
People Science: What’s the difference between the two separate tracks and what prompted you to create the W2W track?
Melissa Starinsky (MS): The regular intern track is now two years compared to the three years that we started with back in 2008. It is for employees that have a college degree or the minimum 24-hours of accredited college business credit that is necessary for entry into the profession. In contrast, the W2W intern track is three years and is targeted to our returning and wounded veterans that have little to no post-high school education. We wanted to create a pathway for our wounded veterans for a meaningful and productive career in acquisition. We know what great employees, team players, and problem solvers our Veterans are and we want to specifically tap that resource to help address some of our acquisition workforce challenges. The W2W program leverages the Veterans’ GI Bill benefits and we help them obtain the 24-hours of college business credits required for entry into the field.
Twenty-three Veterans were enrolled in the first class and between them they have seven Purple Hearts,two Bronze Stars and over 170 years of military experience. In response to interest within and outside of VA, we are prepared to scale up internally and build this program out across government. It’s a win-win-win for Veterans, the VA and the nation. The program is comprehensive and holistic and is grounded in ensuring the proper support structure is provided for transition back into civilian life.
They are amazing men and women and have proven that they are high performers by achieving an average grade point average (GPA) of 3.7 in their academic studies and they’re performing at incredibly high levels.
People Science: Tell us about the Peak Performance element of the W2W program.
Melissa Starinsky: The Wounded Warriors are the first to use our Peak Performance Training, which includes biometric feedback and other mental conditioning. So far, it has resulted in 154 percent improvement in attention, 58 percent brain speed improvement for working memory and 32 percent improvement in short term memory recall. In addition to the positive data results, we also believe it has contributed greatly toward high performance as they have moved into their on the job rotation experiences.
People Science: You mentioned the regular intern track is now two years instead of three years. Why did you scale it back?.
Melissa Starinsky: Our original model reflected an in-resident approach where we would recruit and establish the intern’s duty station in Frederick, Md., for a period of three years, but this approach was more expensive. In working with stakeholders to be more strategic with our recruitment and succession planning efforts and being sensitive to costs – including the time away from the office for training – we’ve turned it into a non-resident program, while maintaining our high quality standards and making it much more cost-effective. We have matured our stakeholder engagement methodologies over the last few years and now they are working with us to hire interns to participate in the program. They are an employee of the stakeholder and have a job to go to when they graduate. Our stakeholders are very involved in the learning program as sponsors and our intern retention rate is at 97 percent.
PeopleScience: How much time do interns in the two year track spend on campus in Frederick, MD versus on the job?
Melissa Starinsky: The program is full-time for two years and in year one, they are here on site forty percent of the time. The rest [sixty percent] is in their respective contracting office. In year two, the on-site ratio drops to twenty-five percent on campus and seventy-five percent in their contracting office.
People Science: It’s clear how that reduces costs but by reducing the program by a third and requiring much less time in residence, isn’t the learning compromised?
Joanne Choy: No. As we made the shift from resident to non-resident, we were very thoughtful in our instructional systems design approach to ensure that quality was not compromised. The outcomes so far for the two-year non-residential program are actually better, at least preliminarily, than what we experienced with the three-year, fully residential program.
People Science: How many sponsoring clients do you have and what is their role? They hire the learner but are they expected to do anything else?
Melissa Starinsky: We started with one stakeholder partner in 2008. The operational sponsoring organization has to make a commitment to the intern’s development; they can’t just take the person back on rotational assignment and sit them at a desk or give them menial work. The sponsor must invest in mentoring the learner, and that means taking the more experienced folks out of operations to groom the intern and bring them along. And, that’s not an easy thing to do when faced with the day-to-day tactical operations of awarding and administering contracts. We are grateful to our sponsoring organizations for the commitment and leadership they have shown to the interns and the VA organization to address the capacity and capability gaps we have within the acquisition workforce. We are now up to 106 stakeholder sponsors. We have great results in our training effectiveness metrics but the stakeholder growth we’ve experienced is probably one of the best testimonials you could ever ask for in terms of whether the program is working or not.
“… many point out that contracting officers ignore elements of the FAR that instruct them to be creative and exercise discretion in the procurement process.”
People Science: Correct me if I’m wrong, you have 80,000 square feet and 16 classrooms at your campus in Frederick, MD. But there are 32,000 acquisition professionals in the VA alone, and you are also servicing other agencies. Do you need more space or resources? And if you have to scale up, can you?
Melissa Starinsky: Right now, we are able to meet the demand that we have. However, with the addition of our two (2) newest schools, the Supply Chain Management and Facilities Management Schools, we are quickly running out of space. In addition, there is significant interest in scaling up and increasing throughput of participants in our W2W intern program. That, coupled with our other three schools enrollment levels, and the steady increase in demand from other agencies, prompted us to perform an analysis to understand what it would take to expand, should we need to. We stand ready to ramp up should the demand increase and have run the models to reflect various levels of scale. We are also looking to re-design some of our instructor led courseware to distance learning to accommodate throughput increases in a virtual manner.
People Science: You used to have to hire and pay your interns and then work to get them jobs, now, your agency sponsors do those things. You used to have full residency costs for three years, now your interns learn mostly on-the-job. It seems you should have the resources to significantly increase the volume of training, is that true?
Melissa Starinsky: We actually have increased the volume of training across the academy from where we started in 2008 and are at a steady state of five (5) active intern cohorts (or about 300 interns) at a time. We have become leaner in our operations over time through experience and applying lessons learned. At the same time, we have seen improvements in quality.
One of my mantras that I preach to the academy staff is to continually strive to lower costs and improve our training effectiveness, being very careful not to detract from the quality or richness of the learning experience. As I mentioned before, we are doing more distance or virtual learning all across the academy but not every topic lends itself to that delivery modality. We’re very thoughtful and work with our stakeholders to determine the best learning modality and find the right balance, including costs, travel, and time away from the office. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of having a variety of learning options that are effective and responsive to different learning needs that our employees have. So we can’t switch completely to online, virtual, or blended learning but our diversified portfolio of modalities allows us to teach more people with less money.
People Science: You’ve trained students for agencies outside the VA. Is that expanding and will that also require you to scale up?
Melissa Starinsky: Yes, we continue to get interest from other agencies. We have already put more than 340 non-VA students through the academy in our Contracting Professional and Program Management Schools and we could easily double that. We think the demand will continue to increase. With the volume discounts we’re already able to negotiate due to our size, we’re very competitive. We can probably offer a better price per seat than they can get on their own.
People Science: But don’t agencies have other options, can’t they simply buy training and deliver it themselves?
Melissa Starinsky: Yes, they can but we are able to deliver at a lower cost and devote resources to ensure the highest quality content and delivery. We have very high quality standards and hold our vendors accountable to ensure materials are current and instructors have the skills and the technical expertise necessary to inspire student learning. In addition, our Program and Project Management curriculum, for example, is fully customized; there is a real need all across Government to enhance agency’s program management capability.
“We want to improve the performance of the acquisition process across government as a whole.”
People Science: You mentioned demand before. What is causing the growth in demand even when most government agency budgets are shrinking?
Richard Garrison: Well, for example, major acquisition programs have to have at least one PM trained as an acquisition specialist. There are 2200 program managers in VA who oversee programs. And major programs have lots of projects. We believe that each of those projects should be managed by an acquisition-trained PM. It isn’t enough to be a certified project manager either; they still need training in the federal requirements. So the demand is constant in that respect.
More importantly, we want to improve the performance of the acquisition process across government as a whole. One of the ways to do that is to have consistent development. There is a huge need for it but not all leaders across the federal government recognize it. We’re starting to see lots of people coming to the same conclusion but it means time away from the office to develop the skills and so you have a project you have to leave, that means getting them to make an investment for the longer term which can be difficult. Still, agencies are coming to us more and more with this desire to grow a program manager capability within their department. Right now we can accommodate any agency that comes to us.
People Science: Vendors often complain that contracting officers and those involved in acquisitions are too rigid. In fact, many point out that contracting officers ignore elements of the FAR that instruct them to be creative and exercise discretion in the procurement process. How is the VAAA addressing this if at all?
Melissa Starinsky: Sometimes we in the acquisition community have more influence than we think but some use the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as a crutch for not being able to get the job done or as an excuse for the system taking as long as it does.
In contrast, I’ve seen many contracting officers over the years that are expert in researching, interpreting, and applying the FAR in the ways in which it was intended. We have tremendous opportunity all across Government to streamline, be innovative, and exercise significant discretion within the system, while at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the process and obtaining the best value for the taxpayer. Some performance gaps we’ve identified through conversations with our stakeholders are things like risk management, critical thinking, process improvement, and teamwork.
We are particularly excited about a new Critical Thinking series our Program Management School is developing in very close concert with one of our significant stakeholders. This will be the first crossfunctional training offering we have in the academy where we bring the entire acquisition team together: the technical, legal, contracting, and financial personnel. We’re still working on the details but have ideas to incorporate targeted workshops into the series that will simulate real world source selections. We will be getting beyond the tools, technologies, samples, and templates. We will be getting the acquisition team to examine the business drivers, alternative and innovative solutions, and the factors that influence a successful outcome. The team will also examine how early decisions affect or limit the options later in the process. This is where they learn how to become true business partners.
People Science: You mentioned writing skills, why should contracting officers be good writers?
Melissa Starinsky: In my view, writing is probably one of the most critical skills needed to be an effective member of the acquisition team. I’ve seen people in our community do a lot of great analysis but have difficulty translating the results of that analysis or the conclusions they’ve drawn into written documentation. And, that gets us into trouble with schedule delays associated with documents having to go through multiple rounds of edits and reviews, bad writing means more protests since the written documentation is primarily what the Government Accountability Office (GAO) relies upon in rendering their decisions. And, with the public questioning the transparency of the process, I constantly tell our interns and students that we should be able to tell a story for every tax-payer dollar we spend, and any 8th grader should be able to understand it.
People Science: How do you evaluate your programs? How do you know whether quality is improving and whether you’re getting good returns for the money you’re investing?
Melissa Starinsky: As I’ve said before, one of my primary goals is to lower costs, improve quality, and ultimately ensure we are meeting the needs of our acquisition workforce and contributing to better acquisition and mission outcomes. We are very mindful of costs and we seek to leverage existing resources wherever possible. For example, the VA’s Learning University, an internal entity with whom we partner, has an enterprise-wide VA license for some really great online content, especially for foundational knowledge. We are using some of that online content and pairing it with a blended learning approach, to deliver many of our courses. This leads to a significant increase in utilization of that VA investment and saves us time and money in developing blended learning solutions that can meet the need. That’s just one example of leveraging investments already made by the Department rather than reinventing the wheel at VAAA.
For evaluation, we use one of the industry standards, the Kirkpatrick Model, for assessing training effectiveness across all of our schools. In FY 2013, we achieved an average student satisfaction rating of 89%. We are pleased with the results but will continue to set the bar higher and higher. In addition, we are measuring the effectiveness of all training, virtual and in person, to see if scores are moving up or down as we convert more and more traditional training to online training. For example, Richard Garrison is currently converting his mid-level program management converting his mid-level acquisitions curriculum to a virtual delivery. Cost is the primary driver for this but we may continue to offer an instructor-led version until we know that the online version produces the same or better results.
“I want to show our learners how to become a partner with industry, to treat them like part of the team – a genuine partnership.”
People Science: What is the mid-level program you referred to? Is it for mid-career acquisition professionals?
Melissa Starinsky: Yes, we are also building out a continuing education program to help develop our midlevel contracting folks. This program will be aimed at helping them prepare to run the acquisition business for their groups as they progress in their careers.
The bulk of the acquisition training that exists today is based on the Federal Acquisition Institute’s (FAI) contracting workforce competency model which is a great starting point but reflects a one-size fits all approach. We are expanding that model to define those competencies that are needed for the contracting officer, acquisition manager, and the acquisition leader roles. From there, we will build and offer acontinuing education curriculum that helps develop the strategic and business operational skills that we need to run more efficient and effective acquisition organizations.
I think we have a real opportunity to develop our contracting folks to think strategically about how to break down barriers that are getting in the way of being able to execute the federal acquisition function and to mature organizational capability. With the 80 hours of training that is needed every 2 years to maintain Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting (FAC-C), we need to provide our workforce with learning opportunities beyond the more advanced technical skills training. We are excited about this new approach and have characterized this as the “missing link” in addressing some of our acquisition workforce challenges – and the acquisition workforce is hungry for it. This new approach will increase the variety of courses available and grow the skills that our workforce needs and wants.
People Science: Last question. What haven’t we covered and what’s next, what are your objectives in the coming years?
Melissa Starinsky: We didn’t talk about the suppliers or our contractors themselves. They are a part of the acquisition team and we want to show our learners how to become a partner with industry, to treat them like part of the team – a genuine partnership. We’ll get better mission outcomes and results that way. And I want us to talk with industry in the development of our programs, as a stakeholder. Trust is key. You can have an arms-length relationship with suppliers and still have genuine trust – trust in the system, the process, and the players. That has served me very well in my career and the FAR has never gotten in the way.
I’m really optimistic about the future despite the bad stories and negative press about the acquisition business. Our community is taking a beating all across government but there are a lot of really good people committed to what they do, and we should thank and acknowledge them for the significant responsibility they have undertaken.
It can be a grueling business sometimes and we are fortunate to have such committed employees that want to do what’s best for our veterans. We also have great senior leadership support in VA that recognizes the importance of properly investing in our workforce.
I have always told our interns: the technical part is easy, it’s more about managing relationships and doing what you tell others you will do. From the work that we’ve done in the academy thus far, we have clearly accelerated the learning curve but it still takes time and years of experience to get the depth and breadth to know this job really well, to really know what you’re doing. We do a terrific job with the foundational skills but it takes time to develop the all-important experience. It took me a good five to seven years – even with fantastic leadership and training – to really understand and master the job. We can accelerate the knowledge, but leading acquisition for one full and open competition does not make you an expert, it takes many. Experience counts.
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