USACE pilots virtual methods to train, test value officers amid COVID-19 restrictions

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville District
Published July 6, 2020

To maintain operations amidst COVID-19 travel restrictions, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the private sector to conduct this year’s annual training and necessary qualification exams for USACE’s value officers. 


USACE conducted the first-ever virtual Value Methodology Fundamentals 1 training course June 1-5, 2020.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers holds this course annually in coordination with the USACE Learning Center, but this year it looked a little different.


“This course was delivered virtually as a trial run for the international value engineering industry as a whole,” said Corey White, of the Office of Value Expertise, also referred to as OVx. “USACE has one of the most effective VE programs in the world, so the industry is looking at us in regard to how we’re overcoming the challenges of the virtual environment during the pandemic.” 


Completion of this course and obtaining Value Methodology Associate, also known as VMA, certification is a minimum qualification requirement for district and regional value officers in USACE to obtain their initial warrant authority. These employees make decisions on all procurements larger than $2 million; therefore, it is crucial they are trained and qualified to make those decisions.  


However, VE staff weren’t the only attendees of the course. Professionals from across USACE representing the cost engineering, contracting, and project management communities also attended this session and successfully completed course requirements. According to the instructors, the students’ participation was everything they could have hoped for. 


“When we offer it in person, this is normally a very dynamic course,” White said. “So we were concerned with how well that would translate in the virtual environment. The students were engaged and energetic, so we couldn’t have asked for more.” 


Melissa Boyd, a member of the OVx out of Huntington District, took the lead with planning the course and partnering with SAVE International to conduct the virtual pilot. This included tasks such as familiarizing instructors and students with the virtual meeting environment; developing group rules for the course specific to the situation; and revising course materials to accommodate the virtual environment. 


To give students more personalized instruction, the course used five instructors from across USACE with individual breakout rooms. This allowed private work time and individual discussion with instructors that doesn’t always exist in virtual meetings.  


“At the conclusion of each day, instructors compiled feedback on the day’s events to address what was planned, what actually happened, opportunities for improvement, and progress made toward measures of success,” White said. 


The course concluded June 5, with students taking the VMA exam. Currently, SAVE International requires applicants to complete the exam at a local proctored testing center.  However, many of these testing centers remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


To ensure our students had the opportunity to complete this exam, Jeff Hooghouse, USACE chief Value Officer, and Nick Turpen, OVx out of Louisville District, worked closely with SAVE International to setup and deliver an online VMA exam. 


“This was the first and only online VMA exam executed by someone outside of SAVE,” White said. “And this demonstrates the trust relationship that USACE has built within the industry.”


SAVE provided USACE with the 60-question test (and non-disclosure agreement), which was used to create an online VMA exam through the use of ClassMarker online software. This software allowed the exam to be setup and administered to meet SAVE International’s testing standards. Hooghouse was able to fulfill the proctoring requirement by having each student take the exam while logged in to a webcam-enabled Cisco Webex meeting. 


Considering the uncharted territory, the results of the exam would not only demonstrate the students’ understanding of the material, but also the effectiveness of the virtual delivery.  As such, the efforts of Hooghouse and Turpen played a critical role in the success of the virtual course. The results show that effort paid off; the USACE students had a pass rate of 94 percent, compared to the industry-average 78 percent.


“We [USACE and SAVE International] are very pleased with the execution of this course,” Hooghouse said. “Improvements can be made to solidify this as an alternate means of presenting training materials in the future, regardless of the state of travel restrictions.”


Course evaluation feedback received from this course has been shared with SAVE International, and this information has already been used to see how SAVE can replicate USACE’s success going forward.


Course attendees included Louisville District staff Quyet La, Shelby Hogan, Carmen Felten and Heather Bauer. Other USACE participants were Peyton Abernathy and Derek Gray from Nashville District; Ben Sakmar from Pittsburgh District; Scott Pittman and Larry Brotherton from Great Lakes and Ohio River Division; Chris Dols from New York District; Pat Devine from New England District; Erica Stephens from Norfolk District; Liz Norrenberns from St. Louis District; Derrick McCollum from Fort Worth District; Chris Norton from Wilmington District; Kenneth Kamp from Kansas City District; and Matthew Scrivner from Europe District.


Instructors included Melissa Boyd of OVx/Huntington District, Corey White of OVx/Louisville District, Lee Danley of South Atlantic Division, Neal Newman of Memphis District, and Jeff Hooghouse of Headquarters USACE.