By Kathleen Murray – AFCS Talent Acquisition
Kacie Varner, a civilian contract specialist at Randolph Air Force Base, is living a world of possibilities. She will finish her four-year COPPER CAP internship with the Air Force Civilian Service (AFCS) this summer. Not only did she just finish her MBA in Business Administration, but it was completely paid for by the Air Force. And she was working and developing as a contract specialist the whole time.
COPPER CAP is different from other internship programs. This isn’t fetching coffee or making copies. It introduces professionals into the contracting career field. It is designed to attract, train, and retain high-caliber candidates, especially those with a business or engineering background.
Interns receive both formal and on-the-job training in all aspects of contracting: from defining the terms of the Air Force’s needs, to preparing solicitations, to negotiating and awarding contracts. Interns also receive a competitive salary while they go through a structured professional development and work towards a graduate degree.
“I have so many friends who are still in debt from college. I’ve been given this incredible gift…I didn’t pay a penny for my degree. The Air Force paid for it.”
COPPER CAP develops interns from entry level contracting positions into management jobs over the three to four years of the internship. This is people doing meaningful work—earning great benefits, gaining tremendous experience and top-notch training, and at the same time being eligible for regular promotions as they learn and grow professionally.
Ms. Varner didn’t start her career knowing she wanted to be contract specialist. She felt stagnant at her job before joining the program. She wanted room to grow and develop professionally. “There was nowhere upward for me to go.” When she learned about being a contract specialist, she thought, “This is cool. This is really cool.” AFCS presented her with the perfect opportunity where all the choices are in her hands.
Contract Specialists are at the heart of the complex process of supplying and sustaining the U.S. Air Force. They help acquire everything from satellites, electronics, and high-performance aircraft to supplies and services necessary for the day-to-day operation of military installations around the world.
As a contract specialist, Varner is the Contracting Officer’s right hand, doing research and background work. It takes all of her business acumen and critical thinking. “The great thing about contracting is that there are so many different working parts, pieces, and types of contracting, that the possibilities are endless.” The sheer variety of things she can do as a contract specialist is the exciting part.
Contract specialists serve as liaisons between the Air Force and business, translating the needs of the service to contractors. Varner has already worked with architecture and engineering contracting; contingency construction for Afghanistan; training for Saudi Arabia. She’s done pricing and negotiation, and buys for the Air Force Recruiting Service. She also helped build requirements and write requests for proposals for contractors.
All the elements of the work of a contract specialist revolve around the acquisition process. “Whether you are building the initial requirement or actually building the request for proposal for contractors, or you are evaluating the proposals, it’s a lot of working with your customer—emails and phone calls. It’s a lot of writing: decision documents and memorandum. And the actual administration, once we get a requirement on contract there is a lot that is happening there. Once we buy it, it doesn’t actually stop. There’s a process that keeps happening to ensure the government is really getting what it paid for.”
The training and the skills she and her colleagues get through COPPER CAP are not only useful in their professional lives, but, as Varner says, “The things [I’ve learned] that I can use in my personal life are incredible! The critical thinking, how to deal with difficult people, communication…it’s applicable in all facets of your life.”
While there are parts of being a contract specialist that are particularly appealing to Varner—she especially enjoys pricing and negotiating face-to-face—it is the richness of opportunity that satisfies her.
“The pay is fantastic and the responsibilities are determined by what you want, and where you want to go. How responsible do you want to be? How many decisions do you want to be responsible for? Do you want to be responsible for buying a $50 million piece of equipment, or do you not? The opportunities are out there. If you want to deploy overseas, for example, you can. You steer your own path. As a civilian, I steer the ship. There are so many different options.”
Working as contract specialist in AFCS, Varner says, “The sky’s limit.” The COPPER CAP Program helped her hone her skills so she can reach her potential.
“I’ve been able to experience a lot of different facets of contracting. And there are many. As an intern I’ve just scratched the surface of all of those. It’s been awesome.”
Members of the Air Force Civilian Service (AFCS) don’t wear uniforms or have military service obligations, but do work side by side with active duty Airmen to provide every kind of support service needed to succeed. AFCS professions include scientists, IT/cyber, engineers, contract specialists, teachers, intelligence experts, mechanics, and human resources professionals. The AFCS community stretches across the world and offers medical care, child care, shopping, entertainment, recreation, and everything else you’d expect from a vibrant society of talented individuals.
Learn more about the COPPER CAP program and other internship opportunities here.