I spoke Monday afternoon with the first group of about 30 or so contracting interns at the brand-new VA Acquisition Academy in Frederick, Maryland. It was a very pleasant eye-opener: I would recommend it for anybody -- especially including congressional staff and those working on the Obama administration transition -- that is thinking or making policy about revitalizing our contracting workforce.
To my surprise, for only one intern in the group was this a first job. These are not brand-new college grads. They are a wide range of ages, including many mid-career folks, and most have had significant work experience, in both business and government. More than half have MBAs, four have law degrees and all but one has a master's degree of some sort. About three-quarters are either veterans themselves or have a parent who is a vet.
I was told by Academy leadership that the two primary traits they looked for when interviewing candidates for the job. First was commitment to the VA's mission. Second was an enthusiasm for continuous learning.
In their first few weeks of the program, they have started learning the FAR. But they are just not sitting around all day mastering the regs. On September 11, and the weekend before Veteran's Day, they visited VA hospitals to understand better those on whose behalf they are buying. In those visits, they sang for and played games with elderly, disabled vets. Interspersed with studying the FAR has already been material on leadership skills and team skills.
The Acquisition Academy sees its goal as being "to develop trusted business advisors who are sought out by their peers and customers." Prominent on the wall in the classroom where I spoke were the Core Guiding Principles of Part 1 of the FAR -- including that the goal of the procurement system is providing best-value products and services for customers, and with the empowering language that if it's not prohibited and it's in the interests of the government, it's allowed prominently framed on the wall. It is inspiring to see how neither the Acquisition Academy nor the interns have let the current dreary contracting environment -- where contracting officers seem to be being asked mostly to make sure they follow the rules, keep their heads down, act as police, and not do much of anything else -- let them down. They are aiming higher. Good for them!
Each student has already developed a personal "stand" that represents, in one sentence or phrase, the commitment they are making to what kind of contracting professional they want to be. The group shared their "stands" with me. They include to be "the best team player," "a source of inspiration," a "servant leader," "to make a difference," "to lead by example," to "strive for constant innovation," and "to lead a revolution."
The interns have been hired as GS-9s, and the training will continue (although obviously not full-time) for three years. One of the interns noted that what has most surprised her so far is the positive attitude of the organization towards giving new employees such a significant training opportunity. Academy leadership recognizes that the big challenge for the VA is not recruiting these people but retaining them by giving them meaningful work. Those in Congress and the fear industry who seek to turn the job of the contracting officer into a police function, or to scare contracting professionals into good behavior, need to realize that they threaten our ability to keep good people such as those the VA is recruiting.
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