NASA's implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration, retirement
of the space shuttle, completion of the International Space Station,
and development of new space vehicles represent "a daunting series
of transitions, both programmatic and institutional," Toni Dawsey,
NASA's Assistant Administrator for Human Capital Management testified
at a May 17 hearing. "These changes have significant workforce
implications - for both civil servants and contractors," she informed
the House S&T Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. With approximately
thirty percent of the NASA workforce eligible for retirement and some
employees not being fully utilized, it is widely recognized that the
space agency needs to retrain many current employees and attract a new
generation of workers, while preserving institutional memory and employee
morale. The subcommittee hearing focused on NASA's efforts and two recent
reports offering additional suggestions.
In April 2006, NASA released a Workforce Strategy (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/103.html),
and since then it has been developing an implementation plan and putting
in place programs to retrain its current workforce and attract new talent.
In March 2007, the agency submitted to Congress legislative proposals
to gain additional flexibility in staffing. According to Dawsey, the
workforce strategy and implementation plan are based on three principles
(10 healthy NASA Centers; maximizing current human capital; and evolving
to a more flexible, scalable workforce) and three primary goals (understanding
mission requirements and matching skill needs to program tasks; reshaping
the existing workforce to meet mission needs; and compiling and integrating
workforce data with financial and other business systems).
This year, the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Academy
of Public Administration (NAPA) both issued reports reviewing NASA's
strategy and making recommendations. David Black, Co-chair of the NRC
Committee on Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and
Engineering Workforce, pointed out that while NASA's missions often
operate on a scale of decades, young people in today's labor market
want rapid career progress, are "more oriented toward quick returns,"
and are more difficult to attract and retain than in the past. He noted
that funding has been declining for the small, inexpensive missions
(like suborbital and Explorer missions) that return results in a short
time-frame and give hands-on experience to early career researchers.
He also remarked on the need for project and program management and
systems engineering skills, and suggested that the issue of the "aerospace
workforce ecosystem" was broader than just NASA and should be addressed
on a national level.
According to Black, the NRC report made the following recommendations:
Collect detailed, targeted data on current workforce capabilities and
future needs; Attract and retain younger workers, seeking hiring flexibility
from Congress if needed; Work across government, academia and industry
to develop a coordinated national strategy for aerospace workforce development;
Provide hands-on training opportunities for NASA workers, especially
young employees; Support programs through NASA's education budget that
enable university research and provide hands-on experiences for undergraduate
and graduate students; and Increase investments in small, suborbital
programs and innovative, nontraditional approaches like prizes to inspire
workers and develop needed skills. "Rather than viewing sounding
rockets, aircraft-based research, and balloon programs simply as low-cost,
competed, scientific missions," Black's prepared statement said,
"NASA should also recognize as an equal factor in the criteria
for their selection their ability to provide valuable hands-on experience
for its younger workers and should investigate the possibility of funding
such programs through its education budget." The 76-page report,
"Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs
for the National Vision for Space Exploration" can be viewed and
will be available for purchase online from the National Academy Press
at http://www.nap.edu, under the topic
"Space and Aeronautics."
John Stewart, a member of the NAPA Panel on NASA Multisector Workforce,
outlined that panel's recommendations as follows: Make greater use of
strategic planning mechanisms to be able to anticipate and adapt to
future needs, budget shortfalls, and schedule changes; Broaden workforce
planning to address both civil servants and contractors; Integrate human
capital planning with the acquisition process; Use a formal process
for determining whether a position should be filled by a permanent civil
servant or a term employee; Use a more comprehensive framework to assess
the health of NASA Centers; and Make maximum use of existing staffing
flexibilities while seeking congressional authorization for additional
Lee Stone, representative to the NASA Council of IPFTE Locals, International
Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, declared that "NASA
is not facing a workforce crisis; it is facing a fiscal crisis"
because it was not being given the resources necessary to carry out
all its missions. Stone concurred with most of the NRC recommendations,
but took exception to the NAPA report, charging that it was "basically
a rubber stamp" of attempts by NASA to eliminate full-time employee
positions and operate with inadequate funding. He opposed the conversion
of more permanent positions to term positions, supported enhanced voluntary
buyout authority, and contended that the policy of full-cost accounting
led to low-balling of labor costs. He called for funding NASA "as
close to the authorized level as possible," with additional funding
for Science, Aeronautics, Education and Exploration Advanced Capabilities,
and prohibiting executive transfer authority to move funds between major
accounts. He also stated that the aging of the NASA workforce was a
"faux problem," and that the agency should focus instead on
enhancing the capabilities in its mid-career workforce and ensuring
that NASA is viewed as a stable and exciting career opportunity.
Stewart, however, argued that Stone was "seriously mischaracterizing"
the NAPA report, saying the NAPA panel did not address the issue of
what NASA's budget should be, but tried to suggest tools to achieve
the needed capabilities and adaptability in a climate of budget restraints.
Dawsey indicated that using more term employees was one way of maintaining
flexibility to deal with changing agency needs, not an effort to reduce
full-time staff. She described NASA's many efforts to attract and retain
young workers, including cooperative education, internship and graduate
fellowship programs that involve hundreds of students in NASA projects,
and programs to assist early and mid-career NASA employees in developing
technical excellence and leadership skills, such as the Academy of Program/Project
and Engineering Leadership.
Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) plans to have his subcommittee review the
legislative provisions for additional staffing flexibility submitted
by NASA, and he announced his intention to hold at least one more hearing
on this topic later in the year.