Bright Spots in Government, Take 2: VA’s Acquisition Internship School

In a recent blog post, I highlighted the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Program Management Fellows (PM Fellows) training initiative within the VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA).

What I learned in that interview is that the VAAA gained its inspiration for the PM Fellows from another project called the Acquisition Internship School (AIS). AIS specifically administers two programs: (1) the Acquisition Internship Program and (2) the Warriors to Workforce Program. Both are dedicated to developing the next generation of VA acquisition professionals. Each year, the school initiates one cohort for each program. So far, three cohorts, each with about 30 members, have graduated and been integrated into the VA contracting workforce.

The Acquisition Internship Program (AIP): Developing VA Acquisition Professionals

AIP is a 2-year workforce development program with the purpose of recruiting, developing, and retaining a pipeline of acquisition professionals. They develop these professionals as “trusted business partners,” aiming to give them the business and technical skills to add immediate value in VA acquisition organizations.The program takes an innovative approach that goes far beyond traditional acquisition workforce training programs.

In the AIP, interns receive all required FAC-C Level I and FAC-C Level II coursework by the end of the program. The AIP curriculum comprises six major components: (1) contracting courses, (2) business competency development courses, (3) skill building workshops, (4) on-the-job training, (5) government contract vehicles and systems training, and (6) mission service and development opportunities. An ideal candidate displays strong interpersonal and communication skills along with a desire to develop technical acquisition and business acumen skills and support VA’s mission.

The Warriors to Workforce (W2W) Program: Integrating Wounded Veterans into Acquisition Workforce

W2W Program is a three-year training program that provides Veterans an opportunity to apply military experiences and skills to the contract specialist career field. The program begins with a foundational training year including college business education, peak performance training, mission service, and introductory acquisition courses, preparing wounded warriors for the transition to the professional civilian workforce and their career path as highly skilled acquisition professionals. Upon successful completion of the first year, interns are delivered a curriculum focused on the general business and technical competencies defined for contract specialist. Our experiential-based model teaches innovative acquisition business practices and essential skills to acquire the goods and services for our Nation’s Veterans

The second and third program years of W2W feed directly into the AIP’s two-year program components. The W2W program fills mission critical positions and supports the Secretary’s commitment to Veterans employment. Overall, AIS programs have a high percentage of Veteran participation: 100-percent of the W2W interns are Veterans and 65-percent of the AIP interns are Veterans.

An ideal candidate is a Veteran who has service-connected disabilities and little or no post high school education. The W2W program addresses both the employment challenges facing wounded Veterans and the workforce development challenges of the acquisition community. The W2W interns have a duty station and direct supervision by the Acquisition Internship School in Frederick, Maryland. As permanent locations are solidified, they are reassigned to VA contracting organizations nationwide.

Demonstrable Outcomes: Improving Job Performance and Effectiveness

The VAAA monitors 28 key program metrics to assess measurable success outcomes. To date, these metrics have captured many key success measures. AIS interns are rated 4.4 out of 5 for on-the-job performance, courses rate 4.5 out of 5 for overall effectiveness, intern retention is 96% compared to 90% retention for the overall VA acquisition workforce, and interns receive an average of 95% on course exams for the Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting (FAC-C). In addition, interns are continuing to make an impact post-graduation in that approximately 61% hold Contracting Officer warrants.

The W2W program has demonstrated a number of positive results through its peak performance component. Specifically, the VA has seen a 154% improvement in attention, 58% brain speed improvement for working memory, and 32% improvement on short term memory recall – all areas that contribute to higher performance. These interns have also achieved 100% completion of the positive education requirement for the 1102 series, the cohort’s average college business course GPA was 3.7/4.0, 22% of the cohort received a B.S. in business by May 2013, and 65% of the cohort are on track to receive a Bachelor’s degree within the next year.

Program Replication: Expanding the Training Beyond the VA

AIS has found success using a holistic approach to training, ensuring that the curriculum addresses technical knowledge, business acumen, as well as interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Through experience, AIS has identified a number of key areas that similar programs should consider when developing and implementing a training initiative:

  1. Continuously acquiring and incorporating intern and stakeholder feedback throughout the program,
  2. Utilizing an intern cohort environment,
  3. Ensuring the group works together toward a common goal, increasing responsibility, morale, and motivation; and
  4. Shared outcome planning to solidify a team atmosphere.

Further, the VAAA invites all government agencies to participate in the AIS programs by selecting and hiring individuals to send through the training curriculum.

What other innovative training programs would you highlight? Any that you are working on?

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