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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

VA Acquisition Academy
Warrior to Workforce (W2W) Graduation
Frederick, MD
November 6, 2014

Congratulations to the graduates of the inaugural class of W2W, VA’s Warriors to Workforce Program. You’ve done it! And everyone one of us here today is immensely proud of you!

As I think about this program and its first graduating class before us today, in your service to our country you displayed extraordinary strength and resilience. You sacrificed personally for the greater good. You demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily. You worked with others, often very difference from yourselves, to accomplish great feats. You showed care and compassion for those in need, sometimes at the risk of your own lives. You lived by the core values of duty, honor, and country and, in doing so, you earned our trust.

Think about VA and the entire federal government. Can we imagine any situation where we don’t need more people who put service before self; who can bridge differences to accomplish great things; who will persevere even in the face of daunting obstacles; and who we can trust implicitly to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong?v

Creating this program was the smart thing to do.

At the same time, many of you stood in harm’s way for us. Put your lives on the line. Seven earned the Purple Heart, two received Bronze Stars, and you all earned the profound gratitude of the American people.

Creating this program was the right thing to do.

Warrior to Workforce leverages the attributes you brought from military service; provides higher education, mentoring, and practical training; and transitions you from warfighters to credentialed federal contracting professionals.

It’s the smart thing and the right thing to do.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, today we can say, “Mission Accomplished”!

I especially want to thank the families and loved ones with us who’ve been an integral part of the program. You’ve served our country as well. As much as this program is about giving Veterans new opportunities, it’s also about keeping families together and giving them a strong foundation for a secure future.

Families provided support that eased the way for our graduates—when they were on active duty, or more recently, in those late-night study sessions and those nerve-racking first days of on-the-job rotations.

Let me personally thank each of you for your unfailing reassurance and encouragement. This is your day as well.

Our thanks go to Glenn Haggstrom and Jan Frye for their vision and perseverance in establishing the Acquisition Academy six years ago. I’m not overstating the case when I say that, today, it’s the Ivy League of federal acquisition education.

Kudos, also, to Melissa Starinsky, Joanne Choy, Stephanie Belella, David Sella, and the entire W2W staff for the care and attention to detail they’ve put into the design of the curriculum, the quality of instruction, and the all-important student support systems.

President Tom Powell, Dean Karl Einolf , and the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s University—thank you for being our valued partner in making this day possible for our graduates. Many of them probably never thought they’d go to college—yet, thanks to you, fully 65 percent of this class will complete their bachelor’s degree this year.

You’re a great example of why VA is leveraging our existing relationships and pursuing new ones—because investing in partnerships like ours delivers big dividends for Veterans and their families. Collectively, all of you have contributed to giving our graduates the best education and training available in government today.

There’s no question that the transition from military to civilian life can be daunting. Even more so for our wounded, ill, and injured, who must reevaluate their options about what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

It’s no secret that career transitions can undermine hope and confidence. They can wear down your resilience, compromise relationships, and even invite despair.

The W2W Program is specifically designed to help sustain hope and instill confidence in that happy and fulfilling life you so richly deserve.

It’s not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill training program. It creates a supportive environment where relationships instill camaraderie and confidence, encourage hope, and build success—one exam, one course, one evaluation at a time.

I know that from Day One, this class worked as a high-functioning team—tutoring each other, babysitting each other’s children, making dinners, helping out on moving day, and stepping in with support during the family emergencies that come up from time to time. It’s all part of the personality and power of this inaugural cohort.

Each of you came here in your own way, mostly out of a desire to make a better life for yourself and your family. But I was struck by the story of one graduate who believes that Fate, itself, brought him into the program.

On duty as a police officer, he was in his car in a local parking lot writing up a report when he received an email with information about the new W2W Program. His initial reaction was to delete it, when the words “Frederick, MD” jumped out at him. As he read the message, he wondered where, exactly, the VA was in Frederick. Just then, he looked up and he saw the Academy building, with the VA logo, right there in front of him. The rest of his story is told in his graduation today.

For many of you, this program helped answer the question, “What next?”

For our graduates, “What next” means a clear career path and economic security, valuable credentials and a debt-free start in an in-demand profession; and a seamless transition into the workforce thanks to the program’s hire-train-and-place structure.

Our graduates already have jobs, and that’s something a lot of other graduates today can’t say!

Working in VA acquisitions will be both challenging and rewarding. First, because VA’s moving forward to overcome problems in access to our care. We’ve taken actions to:

  • Rebuild trust with Veterans and stakeholders.
  • Improve our service delivery, with a focus on Veterans’ outcomes.
  • And set a course for long-term excellence and reform.

Our first priority is to improve our performance. There’s a lot at stake: We deliver 240,000 episodes of care and do nearly 1100 surgical procedures—each day.

Second, it’s imperative that we re-set VA’s culture. We’re putting a high premium on our core values: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence—taken together, I-CARE. They can go a long way in helping VA resolve the challenges before it.

And our third is to develop more efficient, transparent, accountable practices to support the care, services, and programs we deliver.

VA’s vision for change is Veteran-driven—from the 90-year-old GI who crossed Omaha Beach, to the 19-year-old Marine who battled insurgents in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley of Death.

We mean to put them in control of their VA experience through a new patient-centric initiative called MyVA. We call it that because it’s how Veterans should view us—providing the first-rate care and services they need, in ways they want to be served.

The second reason why a VA acquisitions career is a cut above is because of the size and scope of our operations:

  • We’re the second-largest federal department, with over 340,000 employees.
  • We’re the country’s largest integrated healthcare system, with almost 9 million Veterans enrolled.
  • We provide annual disability and pension benefits to over 4 million Veterans, and educational benefits to more than one million.
  • We ensure the lives of 6.5 million clients, guarantee over two million home loans, and operate the largest cemetery system in the Nation—
  • All supported by a budget of $164 billion.v

Add all that up and you see that VA looks like a Fortune 10 company. We’re that big and that complex. It should come as no surprise, then, that VA’s one of the largest procurement and supply agencies in government.

With $18 billion in annual spending, the Acquisition Academy is a necessity if we’re to develop, maintain, and advance the effectiveness of our Acquisition Corps. We’re looking ahead with hope that, from today’s graduating class, will come many of tomorrow’s VA acquisition leaders. I say that because there’s a widening window of opportunity for well-qualified, performance-driven contracting employees. Here’s why:

  • First, there are simply too few people with the formal acquisition training and credentials to help agencies like ours meet their mission.
  • Second, the size of VA’s acquisition workforce has not kept pace with the volume of our acquisitions.
  • Third, the Baby Boomer generation is retiring in record numbers and taking their experience and expertise out the door with them. Consider this: Of the more than 73,000 contracting professionals in government, 63 percent of those in civilian agencies are retirement eligible within the next decade—that’s almost two-thirds of the workforce!
  • And our fourth challenge, common to all agencies, is that government programs have become much more complex in recent years. We’ve gone from buying simple supplies and services to acquiring highly complex systems through high-dollar contracts.

Thanks to the W2W Program, our graduates are well prepared to fill a real and growing need in government contracting.

VA Acquisition training is vital. Let me give you an example.

Just recently, two young acquisitions professionals—Mara Wild and Gabe Harris—were instrumental in allowing VA to move ahead, on-schedule, with implementation of the recently passed Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act.

Two key contract modifications were needed to enable non-VA care under the law’s “Choice” provision. Award of these modifications depended on intensive collaboration with senior VA officials in developing requirements, as well as on complex negotiations with contractors.

Mara and Gabe got the job done. They worked dozens of overtime hours, thought “outside the box” to overcome obstacles and reach agreements, met a very tight timeline, and ultimately made a real difference for Veterans who need care. The point is contracting professionals are an integral part of meeting our mission. No program or service functions without them.

Starting today, most of our graduates will be part of VA’s full court press to reestablish our health care leadership and regain and retain the trust of Veterans and the American people. Trust is the cornerstone of our mission of service and the bedrock of all our relationships with partners and stakeholders. It underwrites the nonnegotiable contract America signs with young men and women when they put on the uniform of our military services—a contract that promises we will care for them, for their families, and for their survivors when their service comes to an end.

We earn their trust, and the trust of taxpayers, by doing what’s right for Veterans, and by being the best possible steward of taxpayer resources. It all comes down to the values I spoke about earlier—Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. Without believing in them and “living” them, every day, there can be no trust.

I want to again congratulate our 26 graduates on your great achievement. It signals even greater things to come in your careers. On another note—beyond the diploma you receive today—I’m told that congratulations are also in order for the four weddings, one engagement, and nine births that occurred over the course of the W2W Program!

In closing, let me thank the Congressional staff members who have joined us today. Also, Major General Brian Lein, Commanding General of Fort Detrick, representatives from GSA, VA’s Acquisition Academy Advisory Committee, and the Learning Solutions Forum, as well as VA colleagues—

On behalf of all of us, I want thank each of our graduates for serving our great Nation twice-over: For your military service during the longest war in our history and, once again, on beginning a career in public service at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the General Services Administration.

Well done! Congratulations!