The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), one of the three main administrations of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), provides benefits and services to American veterans and their families in recognition of their service to the nation. Employing more than 12,000 people, the VBA’s vision is that the veterans served by the administration will feel that the United States has kept its commitment to them and that employees will feel that they are recognized for their contributions and are a part of something larger than themselves.
But assessing the learning needs of those 12,000 employees is a difficult task. According to Luisa Hill, learning resource officer with the VBA, there are numerous training programs within the organization, but all have a common thread in that they all include skills inventories.
A recent VA-wide needs assessment in the form of a questionnaire asked employees what kinds of training they’d like to have and where they thought they were lacking, said Hill. “As a whole,” she said, “the VA used that needs assessment to determine some of the lacking leadership skills that we had.”
Historically for the VA, training has only been done on an as-needed basis, with employees going to courses when it was necessary, but according to Hill, learning leaders at the VA have learned that they must train for the future.
“We’re learning this because of this enormous succession planning process that we’re going through because we could lose up to 65 percent of our employees over the next three to five years because of retirement,” said Hill. “We’re lacking a group of upcoming leaders and managers, and this is through the whole agency, not just VBA.”
So based on the VA-wide needs assessment, it was determined that leadership training was needed. Hill recently ran a leadership program for executives, the SES program, or the Senior Executive Service program. She reports that while the skills inventory was very high, and although the group was above average, it was lacking delegation and conflict resolution skills.
“Although our people are leaders and managers, they’re working leaders and working managers, and they have a problem delegating and giving up the control,” said Hill. An outside company performed the skills inventory and was able to give an unbiased assessment of where the groups stood in regard to various leadership skills. “So let’s build some training programs based on better delegation skills, better conflict-resolution skills, better dealing-with-difficult-people skills, those kinds of things.”
Through the skills inventories, the VBA is able to identify its employees’ strengths and weaknesses, and from there, it can see how its employees might use training to turn those weaknesses into strengths. Hill emphasizes that a training course is not necessarily the best solution to improving an employee’s weak areas.
“Sometimes it’s finding a mentor or finding a shadowing assignment or a developmental assignment that will strengthen that weakness or give them another look at how somebody else would handle the same situation,” Hill said. “So we look for things to fill the gaps, not just with training courses or outside education, but sometimes OJT or the right person to pair them with. …We try to combine lots of learning activities to get the point across and to make it interesting and keep the program alive and not stale.”
Hill said that the ultimate success of any training program or initiative hinges on the quality of the program. “Unfortunately, if you’re in the training business, other people aren’t always aware of it, but training is always the first thing that gets cut because it’s seen as an add-on or extra,” she said. “But with all the companies and government agencies going through the succession planning, we’re all up against the same thing. …We have good programs that earn the right to keep the money, and we work very hard to get that. But I tell you, if you don’t put a good program on, then you lose the support and the money.”