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FYI Number 119: September 20, 2001

DOE Experiencing Shortage of Critical S&T Personnel

The Department of Energy's Inspector General concluded in a recent report that "The Department has been unable to recruit and retain critical scientific and technical staff in a manner sufficient to meet identified mission requirements.... [I]f this trend continues, the Department could face a shortage of nearly 40 percent in these classifications within five years." The IG also determined that DOE was not making full use of the tools available to it to attract and keep a skilled S&T staff. The 17- page audit report, entitled "Recruitment and Retention of Scientific and Technical Personnel," was submitted to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on July 10.

According to the report, DOE "manages a large array of science- based and technology-dependent programs and activities in support of its missions in energy resources, national security, environmental quality, and science. Much of the Department's work is conducted by major contractors.... As of May 2001, the Department's Federal workforce consisted of about 9,900 permanent employees, including about 4,600 scientific and technical staff. The Federal workforce - particularly those employees who possess specialized skills in engineering, physics, information technology, and other technical fields - performs a critical contract management role in assuring the quality, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness of contractor-provided goods and services."

The Inspector General found that if the shortages of technically- trained staff continue, "the Department may not have the Federal scientific and technical expertise to effectively administer the work of its contractors," a situation that might lead to "an increased risk of a variety of management problems." Noting that "cost overruns and schedule slippages have occurred over the past decade on Department projects," the report says that "some external oversight groups...have attributed such issues, in part, to inadequate contract management and insufficient attention to technical, institutional, and management issues." The National Ignition Facility is singled out as an example.

Between 1995 and 1998, downsizing and budget cuts reduced DOE's federal staff by almost one-quarter. The report indicates that staff reductions and management problems were both factors leading to staffing shortages in mission-critical areas. "To its credit," the report states, "the Department has recognized the seriousness of its recruitment and retention problems" and took actions to identify its personnel needs. But, the report says, it did not develop a comprehensive plan, based on available funding, for addressing those needs, nor did it develop performance measures to assess its effectiveness in meeting those needs. "Further," the report finds, "the Department had not fully exploited" available management tools for hiring and rewarding personnel with specialized skills, such as recruitment bonuses, retention allowances, excepted service authority, and demonstration projects "to create more flexible compensation and performance systems."

The Inspector General recommends that DOE (1) "develop and implement a comprehensive multi-year workforce planning program;" (2) "develop quantifiable recruitment and retention performance measures...to monitor the Department's progress in solving the human capital resource problem;" and (3) "aggressively and creatively utilize available human resource tools and flexibilities, as well as other means to rebuild and retain a highly skilled scientific and technical workforce at the Department of Energy." The report warns, "the need for action has become critical."

The report is available on the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General Home Page.

It is not only at DOE that concerns are being felt about the availability of a highly-skilled S&T workforce. Lawmakers and many industry executives have expressed worries about the nation's inability to attract and train U.S. citizens for the high-tech workforce. At a recent retreat for congressional Democrats, Stan Williams, the head of Hewlett-Packard's nanotechnology laboratory, remarked that "everyone over the age of 45 in my lab was born in the United States. No one under the age of 45 in my lab is from the United States." Some Members of Congress, led by Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Bill Frist (R-TN) in the Senate and Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) in the House, have drafted legislation to encourage more U.S. college students to pursue degrees in science, engineering or technology. Plans to introduce the "Tech Talent" bill, however, have been delayed after last week's tragedies.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
(301) 209-3094

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