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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report Summary This report of the Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration responds to NASA’s request for an interim report on a study to explore long-range space science and engineering workforce needs to achieve the nation’s space exploration vision, identify obstacles to filling those needs, and recommend solutions for consideration by government, academia, and industry. The report presents a summary of highlights of a January 2006 workshop and a February 2006 committee meeting on the future of the U.S. aerospace space science and engineering workforce, and it provides some preliminary findings with respect to (1) current and projected characteristics of the workforce, (2) factors that impact the demographics of the affected workforces, and (3) NASA’s list of the workforce skills that will be needed to implement the nation’s vision for space exploration, both within the government and in industry. The report also presents initial recommendations that stem from these findings and initial conclusions. There have been numerous recent studies and assessments of aspects of the future viability of the U.S. science and engineering workforce, including both broad macro-level examinations of the technical workforce across all disciplines and sectors and more focused assessments of the outlook in specific fields, such as aerospace science and engineering. These studies have considered such factors as the increasing fraction of the current workforce that soon will become retirement-eligible and the impact of science and mathematics education in the United States in the face of increasing globalization of industry. Studies that have looked in detail at the workforce for the U.S. space program have expressed concerns about the impact of shrinkage of the workforce during the aerospace industry’s consolidation in the 1990s, competition for students from other technical fields that may be perceived as more exciting or having more growth potential, and a possible shortage of graduates who are eligible to receive clearances to work in areas covered by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). NASA’s interests in the workforce question were heightened by President George W. Bush’s January 2004 announcement of a new civil space policy that would refocus NASA’s broad range of research and engineering projects toward the human and robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars, and eventually other solar system bodies. This new vision for space exploration specified a phase-out of the space shuttle by 2010 and development of a new human launch vehicle to support human space missions as early as 2014, and a human return to the Moon between 2015 and 2020. NASA is using those new goals to reshape the agency’s workforce in order to better align the mix of skills with the needs for future missions, and to ensure that NASA will have the necessary skills to achieve the new vision. Consequently, NASA sees a need to identify those skills that will no longer be needed, take steps to retrain and reshape the workforce, and be able to provide specific skills that will be needed in the future. NASA’s workforce issues can be thought of in terms of three timescales:1 Immediate near-term—the workforce problems that NASA is facing at the present moment, particularly the agency’s concerns about its internal skill mix and (approximately 900) underutilized civil service staff at selected centers. This time frame is too short to be within the scope of the committee’s 1 These dates are from NASA’s internal SEITT study and were provided to NASA’s mission directorates in a survey of future workforce needs. See: “SEITT’s Identification of Workforce Competencies to Support the Vision for Space Exploration,” presentation to the Space Studies Board / Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration, Jerry W. Simpson, February 22, 2006.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report charge, and the committee did not issue findings and recommendations concerning it. However, the committee notes that it will shape perceptions among current and potential employees about stability and opportunities in the civilian space program. Mid-term, present to 2012—corresponds with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, completion of International Space Station construction, the period for development of a crew exploration vehicle and crew launch vehicle, and the early development of the lunar exploration hardware. Long-term, post-2012—the period during which NASA will be conducting full-scale development of the human lunar exploration systems. The committee understands that NASA has concentrated heavily to date on the immediate near-term problems. However, except for the results of some modeling of age and retirement eligibility demographics, the committee received little information about NASA analyses or planning for the mid- or long-term workforce skill mix demand or supply. The one exception with respect to skill mix was NASA’s observation about an agency-wide need for systems engineers and project managers. This concern is widely shared by senior managers in the Department of Defense (DOD) and industry, as well. During the workshop NASA did not discuss plans or options for training activities to address the agency’s mid- and long-term needs in any detail. The committee did not see any information about whether or how the agency might be coordinating with other agencies (e.g., DOD) that are facing similar workforce concerns. DOD has created several programs to develop systems engineers, but there was no indication that NASA is working with DOD on these programs.2 The committee’s initial examination of relevant demographic data about aerospace workforce supply and demand led to the following conclusions. First, although there are currently some problems in meeting demand, particularly for specific skills, the situation for employers such as the DOD and the large aerospace companies is not now a major problem. Data on employment demand are difficult to obtain, particularly broken down by relevant skill areas, and those data and projections that exist are often ambiguous as one looks beyond the near-term future. Second, many longer-term projections do forecast a gap between supply and demand that is larger than exists today. However, the size and scope of the gap are not clear. Third, the problems with meeting future demand in the DOD are influenced by the need to employ U.S. citizens and permanent residents who can obtain security clearances. NASA’s workforce pool will be constrained in a similar fashion as the DOD’s because NASA must hire people who can work in areas controlled by ITAR. Fourth, people with strong technical backgrounds can often acquire the specialized knowledge to go into different (but related) fields. Consequently, recruitment need not be too tightly targeted to the momentarily required specializations. Finally, NASA’s mono-generational employee age distribution (i.e., having a peak at only a single age; see Chapter 2) is different from the distribution seen for the DOD and industry, both of which were described at the workshop as being either bimodal or more nearly like the distribution of the U.S. workforce as a whole. However, so far NASA has only begun to examine skill distribution and is becoming aware that it has an age distribution problem, but the committee saw no indication that the agency has begun to act on this concern. NASA is not currently experiencing a supply problem in terms of overall available personnel. But the agency is experiencing a more complex and subtle problem that will grow over time. Like other government agencies and aerospace contractors, NASA is experiencing difficulty in finding experienced personnel in certain areas, such as systems engineers and project managers. NASA’s workforce also has a skewed age distribution arising from hiring policies first implemented in the 1990s. The agency did not experience a hiring freeze during that time, but it adopted policies whereby it filled specific positions but did not hire younger people and “grow” them into positions. As a result, the agency’s mean age has 2 In January 2004 President Bush signed the NASA Flexibility Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-201). The act authorized NASA to increase recruitment, relocation, and retention bonuses, and it streamlined the hiring process for recent graduates. It also expanded pay flexibility and authorized science and technology scholarships that can pay for a student’s undergraduate or graduate school education in return for a commitment by the student to work for NASA for a prescribed period of time following graduation.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report continued to rise over time, and it lacks younger employees with necessary skills. As the agency embarks on new human and robotic exploration programs, problems in fulfilling demand will likely increase because the agency has not been developing the necessary employees from within. The January workshop illuminated the following factors that will influence the demographics of the future aerospace science and engineering (S&E) workforce. Perception—Potential employees need to be convinced that the vision for space exploration is an exciting effort, that it is sustainable, that they can play an important role, that they can receive training or experiences that will help in future jobs, and that their potential co-workers and managers are committed. Stability—Will the overall effort be sufficiently large to maintain constant staffing, incorporate reachable and significant milestones that can serve as starting points for both employees and employers, and be based on a vision viewed as having a sustained duration long enough on which to build a career? Availability—Will key vacancies be open for competition, thereby creating an environment that encourages and facilitates the movement of NASA employees into industry for developmental work experience assignments, the movement of industry employees into NASA where they can mentor NASA employees, and the subsequent return of these employees to their original institutions? Recruitment—Can NASA and industry properly identify required skills in advance, whether the workforce has reliable and effective feeder programs, and how much attention is paid to expanding the diversity of the workforce and recruiting from underrepresented populations? Retention and engagement—The ability to pay competitive salaries, maintain employees’ sense of usefulness, prepare employees for future contributions in addition to current contributions, listen to inputs from employees, provide mentors and training, and facilitate the transfer of know-how from senior to younger employees. International involvement—Although ITAR constraints may lead to a higher demand for U.S. citizens and permanent residents than might be the case in other employment sectors, international participation in space exploration will still have a significant impact on supplying members of the workforce. During the January workshop participants raised a number of other notable points: NASA’s attention to workforce issues seems primarily internally focused, but a more outward looking approach is desirable that accepts that industry and academia are integral parts of the workforce. A solution to NASA’s near-term problems will not come via training students, because that is too long a process. Instead, exchanges with industry and academia are more promising for the near term. There will be a need for more organizational transparency to promote the flow of workers between NASA, industry, and academia. Workforce pull will be more important than push; jobs will have to be made attractive to meet workforce demand. Based on the workshop discussions and additional information that the committee gathered at its second meeting, the committee has the following preliminary findings: NASA has made a reasonable start on assessing its near- and long-term skill needs, and the committee shares the view expressed by NASA representatives that there is still much more work to be done. However, NASA’s work has focused on initial assessment of current workforce demographics and estimates of future needs. NASA has not yet translated that analysis into a strategy and action plan. NASA’s lack of work to date limited the committee’s ability to assess exactly what needs to be done.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report NASA needs a strategic workforce plan that deals with the next 5 years and that lays the foundation for a longer-term process. This will be a new and difficult process for NASA, but it will nevertheless be vital for the agency’s success in implementing the space exploration vision. The committee has not seen compelling evidence for a looming, broadly based shortage in the supply of aerospace S&E workforce employees to meet NASA’s needs. To address those skill areas where there are concerns (both for the near term and the longer term), NASA needs to pay particular attention to identifying and expanding ways to promote exchanges of personnel between NASA and the private sector (industry, academia, and non-government organizations). The degree to which the agency chooses to perform work in-house versus by a contractor will play a major role in the number of personnel that the agency will require. The committee concludes that the ability to recruit and strategically retain the needed workforce will depend fundamentally on the long-term stability of the vision for space exploration and a sustainable national consensus on NASA’s mission. The committee makes the following recommendations: NASA should develop a workforce strategy for ensuring that it is able to target, attract, train, and retain the skilled personnel necessary to implement the space exploration vision and conduct its other missions in the next 5 to 15 years. The agency’s priority to date has been to focus on short-term issues such as addressing the problem of uncovered capacity (i.e., workers for whom the agency has no current work).3 However, NASA soon might be facing problems of expanding needs or uncovered capacity in other areas and at other centers. Therefore, it is important to develop policies and procedures to anticipate these problems before they occur. NASA should adopt innovative methods of attracting and retaining its required personnel and should obtain the necessary flexibility in hiring and reduction-in-force procedures, as well as transfers and training, to enable it to acquire the people it needs. NASA should work closely with the DOD to initiate training programs similar to those that the DOD has initiated, or otherwise participate actively in the DOD programs. NASA should expand and enhance agency-wide training and mentorship programs, including opportunities for developing hands-on experience, for its most vital required skill sets, such as systems engineering. This effort should include coordination with DOD training programs and more use of exchange programs with industry and academia. Finally, the committee wishes to stress that this is an interim report. The committee still has to complete its examination of the role that universities play in supplying, training, and supplementing NASA’s workforce. Part of this assessment will be to consider the role that universities can play in providing hands-on space mission training of the workforce, including the value of carrying out small space missions at universities. The committee also plans to review the final version of NASA’s Systems Engineering and Institutional Transition Team (SEITT) report. The committee will evaluate the skills that the study identifies as necessary to implement the vision for space exploration, assess the current 3 “Uncovered capacity” is NASA’s term for a serious problem with workers for whom the agency has no current work. When NASA cuts programs or reduces budgets, it is left with civil service personnel who may no longer have work to perform. Unlike industry, NASA cannot simply lay off these unneeded workers, but must conform to a complex set of civil service rules. Normally the agency will have some uncovered capacity in its workforce, but in 2005 and into 2006 this number was identified as constituting a significant percentage of its total workforce. During that time NASA was also forbidden by law from conducting a reduction in force, or RIF, to reduce its workforce. As a result, the agency exercised alternative methods to reduce this excess workforce and cut the excess capacity in half by January 2006. The cumulative effects of paying for unnecessary employees can damage the agency in a number of ways, including diversion of tight program funding and the use of poorly qualified employees for work that might otherwise be performed by contractors.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report workforce against projected needs, and identify gaps and obstacles to responding to NASA’s projected needs. In its final report, the committee expects to develop recommendations for specific actions by the federal government, industry, and academia, including organizational changes, recruiting and hiring practices, student programs, and workforce training and improvement to enable NASA to accomplish the goals of the vision.
Representative terms from entire chapter: