NASA Faces Major Transition in Workforce Needs

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Publication date: 
1 June 2007

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, 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, 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 reforms.

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.

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