DACM Corner: Selecting, Mentoring, and Developing Interns

By October 7, 2011October 17th, 2014Career Development, Commentary, General
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Nealie Page, an operations research analyst intern attending PEO STRI’s Acquisition Academy, jumped from the 34-foot tower at Fort Benning’s Airborne School Sept. 8. She, along with the other interns from the Academy, had the opportunity to jump from the famed tower as part of their “day in the life of a U.S. Soldier” experience, a professional development opportunity for the new federal government interns at PEO STRI. (Photos by PEO STRI/Thomas Kehr.)

As I look around at my fellow professionals in the Army acquisition, logistics, and technology (AL&T) community, I see a dedicated, seasoned workforce—and I wonder, who will take the place of these experienced professionals when they decide to retire?

This is something that leadership throughout AL&T should be thinking about: Where do we find the best and the brightest young people to bring into government service, and how do we help them develop into future AL&T leaders? Fortunately, we have some very successful internship programs to guide us.

Experience has shown us that, despite the advantages that private industry may have over government in hiring, many talented college graduates want careers in which they can serve their country. We can harness that talent and commitment without necessarily having to pay the higher salaries that industry may offer. A number of intern programs across the AL&T Workforce have succeeded in doing just that.

‘Hire for Life’

The key, program leaders say, is to make the interns feel like part of the AL&T Workforce from the start, or as I like to call it, “hire for life.” Several organizations have created a boot camp program that builds a bond between the intern and Soldier to serve just that purpose.

The Program Executive Office Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation (PEO STRI) has seen firsthand the value of this team ethic. PEO STRI’s Acquisition Academy, now in its fifth year, is a highly competitive program with a 96 percent retention rate that needs no advertising, apart from the required posting of new openings.

For the Academy course that began in July, PEO STRI received almost 1,700 applicants for a dozen openings. The candidates are screened through online testing and interviews with senior personnel. The competition allows PEO STRI to take only the brightest candidates, the self-starters, and then introduce them to the AL&T Workforce.

Sarah Weston, a systems engineering intern attending PEO STRI’s Acquisition Academy, had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Sept. 8 to jump out of a plane with the Fort Benning’s Silver Wings precision parachute team.

Every candidate has a bachelor’s degree, and many have master’s degrees. While some have prior military service, they all share an appreciation for Army values and a desire to be part of a team with the critical mission of serving the warfighter.

But bringing good interns onboard is only the first step. Helping them map and meet their career goals should be the next major focus. This means establishing Individual Development Plans (IDPs) and then providing each intern with a variety of challenging assignments and continuous learning opportunities.

Of course, this systematic training, mentorship, and follow-up take time out of already hectic schedules. But it is time well spent. If we want our young professionals to be all that they can be, we have to put some sweat equity into it. We must serve as mentors and advisors and guide these young individuals who are so eager to learn and contribute.

Structure Leads to Success

A successful internship program is very structured in this regard. PEO STRI’s Acquisition Academy, for instance, starts with 11 weeks of classroom training by senior personnel. It serves as the intern’s introduction to how the Army is structured and how the Acquisition Corps is organized. It also introduces the Defense Acquisition University courses that are needed to develop an understanding of their field, be it contracting, engineering, or some other specialty.

By far, one of the most rewarding aspects of the interns’ experience is working directly with Soldiers who use the equipment that their organization provides. Acquisition Academy interns, for example, have the opportunity to visit Fort Benning, GA, during Tower Week, a U.S. Army Airborne School event that validates jumpers’ individual skill training in properly and safely exiting an aircraft. The interns can jump from the 34-foot tower, and some even jump in tandem with the Silver Wings precision para­chute team. They also see how Soldiers use the Close Combat Tactical Trainer and the Digital Multi-Purpose Range Complex that PEO STRI procures.

Shi Deng, a budget analyst intern attending PEO STRI’s Acquisition Academy, had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Sept. 8 to jump out of a plane with the Fort Benning’s Silver Wings precision parachute team.

PEO STRI’s interns are in two- to three-year programs from which they become journeymen. Though not every intern training program needs to be this comprehensive, the driving elements remain the same: Army Team values, senior-level involvement, individual attention to include an IDP, challenging work, and regular follow-up. The goal is mission success, and everyone has a role in that accomplishment.

Top-Level Attention

The U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command’s (CECOM) Command-Sponsored Intern Orientation Program has taken a slightly different approach, starting with 3½ days devoted to educating new interns on the CECOM mission; the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) Materiel Enterprise team; and military protocol and traditions.

The CECOM Commanding General (CG), or another senior leader in the CG’s absence, addresses incoming interns on the role they will play in the Army’s mission and support of the warfighter. Since interns are typically new to the Army, the orientation program addresses topics such as the Army’s rank structure; financial planning information; work personality assessment and team building; use of C4ISR Materiel Enterprise collaboration tools; unique characteristics of the enterprise’s diverse, multigenerational environment; the culture of communication and cooperation in the workplace; personal accountability; and juggling work and life priorities.

One of the CG’s top priorities, Human Capital, includes the development of a workforce that is forward-thinking and conscious of the impact they have in the field. This effort has multiple elements, including:

  • Specialized training courses for interns to complement their respective career programs. For example, interns have the opportunity to sharpen their communications skills to include business writing, oral presentation and organization skills, and how to deal with and resolve conflicts in the workplace.
  • Intern Professional Development Day, an annual event that provides interns the opportunity to interact with senior leaders and each other.
  • Greening, which consists of a variety of activities set up to provide insights into the CECOM and C4ISR Materiel Enterprise mission and the life of a Soldier.

Getting Started

So where does the money come from to pay for a successful intern recruitment and development program? As you know, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order in December (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/27/executive-order-recruiting-and-hiring-students-and-recent-graduates), ending the Federal Career Intern Program as of March 1, 2011, and establishing the Internship Program and the Recent Graduates Program. Along with the Presidential Management Fellows Program, those initiatives are collectively called the Pathways Programs.

Additionally, section 852 funding, named after Section 852 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, can help pay for some intern costs; see https://asc.army.mil/web/career-development/852-program for more details.

As you look around at what you can do to bring in and retain young talent, I hope you’ll find the special ingredients that will make your organization an attractive, fun, and rewarding place to work. Your efforts will pay off for the entire Army, and especially our war fighters.

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