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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report 2 NASA’s Exploration Plans and Workforce Implications In the opening session of the January 23-24, 2006, workshop, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Program Assessment and Evaluation, Scott Pace, addressed NASA’s workforce from the perspective of the vision for space exploration. He noted that the vision, which aims to accomplish “a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond,” provides a goal on which to focus in reshaping the agency’s workforce so as to provide the desired long-term sustainability. That reshaping will be required to better align the mix of skills with the needs for future missions and ensure that NASA will have the necessary skills to achieve the vision. He indicated that while most of the skills that are now available via the agency’s workforce will continue to be important to implement future exploration programs, there is a need to identify those skills that will no longer be needed, take steps to retrain and reshape the workforce, and build a capability to provide specific skills that will be needed in the future. Pace noted that, in contrast to NASA’s space science program, the agency has not done as good a job in replenishing its talent pool in the human spaceflight program. Pace briefly described the formation of NASA’s Systems Engineering and Institutional Transition Team (SEITT), which was charged with assessing the institutional implications of the agency’s new plans for the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the exploration systems architecture. Created in June 2005 and consisting of approximately 25 people, the SEITT was asked to make recommendations in four areas—human capital and workforce, organization and management, support requirements and contracts, and infrastructure. In assessing the makeup of NASA’s workforce, the SEITT learned that the current age distribution of the civil service workforce is mono-generational, meaning that the distribution shows a single sharp peak in the age range from 40 to 44. (See Figure 2.1.) At higher ages the distribution for NASA’s workforce falls off at the same rate as the age distribution for the total U.S. workforce. On the other hand, there is a striking difference between the age distributions for NASA’s workforce and for the total U.S. workforce at ages below 40. The U.S. workforce also peaks in the 40s, and it falls relatively slowly for younger ages, whereas the NASA workforce distribution drops rather precipitously below age 40 and has a marked gap at younger ages—it is more concentrated around a single age group than is the U.S. aerospace workforce as a whole. NASA analysts have referred to this disproportionately small number of younger workers as NASA’s “Gen-X gap.” The substantially smaller number of NASA workers in the 25- to 29-year age band will be the workforce that will have to implement the exploration vision over the next 15 years, raising the question of whether NASA will have sufficient numbers of highly trained personnel to accomplish its goals. Finally, Pace provided a glimpse of the results of NASA’s assessment of future skill needs. He indicated that areas for which there would be a growing need for civil service skills included systems engineering; mission analysis, planning, and design; aerospace medicine; software engineering; and control systems, guidance, and navigation. By contrast, he cited process engineering as an example of a skill that NASA would need less in the future. Pace acknowledged that as individual programs and areas of research are restructured or eliminated, it is possible that the agency could lose skills and capabilities that it might eventually need to reacquire, e.g., in space life sciences. The committee agrees that, as other areas of high-technology research, development, and engineering have demonstrated, replenishing lost skills may be costly.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report FIGURE 2.1 The age distribution of NASA’s current workforce compared to the totals for the aerospace sector, the federal government, and the U.S. workforce. SOURCE: Garth Henning and Richard Leshner, NASA, presentation to the Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration, February 22, 2005. Pace also noted that there are a number of factors that will complicate NASA’s workforce challenges, such as uncertainties about the future pace and scope of some program areas (e.g., nuclear systems), program volatility (e.g., the near-term reductions versus longer-term needs in life sciences), outside competition for workers, NASA’s need to hire U.S. citizens, workers’ ability to rotate between NASA and industry (i.e., with NASA employees working at an industry site and industry employees working at NASA sites), and NASA’s immediate needs for workers who already have significant experience rather than more junior people who require training. The committee notes that one difficulty in understanding and characterizing NASA’s potential workforce problems is that the agency’s job definitions do not correspond with the standard occupational classifications produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The problem is not that the agencies and BLS use different classifications (although that problem existed in the past), but that the BLS occupational classifications lack sufficient detail to be useful to NASA. This is a common problem as well for other fields, such as information technology, where an occupation such as “computer programmer” does not indicate which type of programming languages a person is knowledgeable about. The challenge for the committee—or anyone attempting to assess NASA’s workforce problems—is that it is difficult to compare the agency’s demand for workers with the available supply. Michael Hecker, Acting Director of Constellation Systems in NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, summarized NASA’s exploration and systems architecture plans for accomplishing the exploration vision (see Chapter 1). He described NASA’s plans for organizational roles and
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report relationships to accomplish the missions in the exploration roadmap and, by implication, provided some insight into where classes of workforce skills will be needed. NASA plans to have a streamlined headquarters directorate management office that will be responsible for strategic and policy direction, cross-program integration, program guidance, and reviews and oversight. Program management responsibility will be distributed across three NASA centers (Ames Research Center, Johnson Space Center, and Langley Research Center), which will be responsible for cross-project integration, assessment and evaluation, balancing requirements, and program insight. Management of specific projects will be assigned to individual NASA centers, where project offices will be responsible for project implementation via either in-house teams or out-of-house contracts. Hecker indicated that NASA’s general approach will be to assign front-end technology development to in-house NASA center teams, while major systems development work would be done by industry. Systems operations responsibilities may be shared by centers and industry. Kenneth Ledbetter, Chief Engineer of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, provided an overview of NASA’s space and Earth science program and highlighted currently operating and planned missions and future technology development needs. He noted that the program has a total of 54 missions that are currently in operation and another 54 missions that are in formulation or in development. This set of robotic missions spans the scientific disciplines of astrophysics, heliophysics, planetary science, and Earth science. Ledbetter explained that program elements include a range of major, moderate size, and small principal-investigator-class space missions as well as a portfolio of basic and applied research grant projects in scientific data analysis, theory, suborbital flight investigations, and technology development. Ledbetter described the concept of a “science ecosystem” that has three components with the following key roles: NASA centers Program and project management Development of at least one flight mission at all times to maintain key skills Mission-enabling technology development Scientific research in support of missions Industry Contractor base for centers Capacity to serve as systems integrator, prime contractor, or subsystem contractor Engineering and fabrication capabilities Universities Training and research Home of many mission principal investigators Instrument technology development Finally, Ledbetter addressed several current challenges that will have an impact on the future space program workforce. First, reduced budgets and cost performance problems with small principal-investigator-class missions are leading to a reduced flight frequency for these missions and, consequently, reduced opportunities to expose graduate students in science and engineering to end-to-end experience with the design and development of spaceflight missions. Second, budget pressures on small suborbital flight programs (aircraft, high-altitude balloons, and sounding rockets) and on funding for instrument technology development are also reducing the number of opportunities in these programs, with attendant deleterious impacts on opportunities for young scientists and engineers. Third, Ledbetter referred to the “graying” of the scientific workforce, in which 60 percent of NASA’s Ph.D. scientists are over the age of 50. The latter situation could lead to a significant shrinkage in NASA’s civil service science cadre in the coming years. Toni Dawsey, NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Human Capital Management and Chief Human Capital Officer, discussed NASA’s workforce and workforce strategy. She noted that almost 60
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report percent of the agency’s 18,400 civil service staff are scientists and engineers. Within the science and engineering (S&E) cadre 90 percent are engineers and 10 percent are scientists. Consistent with the mono-generational distribution described by Pace, the average age of NASA scientists and engineers is 45.8; 24 percent are under 40, 67 percent are between 40 and 59, and 9 percent are 60 or older. NASA finds that 12 percent of its engineers and 21 percent of its scientists are now eligible to retire, and the agency projects that in 2011 28 percent of the engineers and 45 percent of the scientists will be eligible to retire. Off-setting the prospects for mass retirements in the near future is the fact that NASA is now experiencing an overall annual attrition rate of only 3.5 percent and a slightly lower rate for scientists and engineers.1 Dawsey cited a variety of recruitment, retention, and relocation incentives that are available to the agency, including co-op, student loan repayment, special appointment, and bonus programs. She noted, however, that the major challenge is the need to reshape the workforce to respond to the requirements for implementing the exploration vision. This challenge includes a short-term need to balance work amongst the NASA centers and deal with uncovered capacity, support the transition from the space shuttle to the crew exploration vehicle, and reshape the aeronautics program. There is also a long-term challenge to provide for a viable workforce to support exploration programs. NASA is dealing with the short-term problem through job fairs, job transition assistance activities, buy-outs, and early outs. Dawsey reported that slightly more than 1,000 uncovered employees have been accommodated through such efforts but that about 900 other positions that are considered to be “unfunded capacity” still need to be addressed. The SEITT activity has been addressing the longer-term issues so as to identify the skills needed for space exploration and other parts of NASA’s mission. The study goal was to discern trends in demands for skills based on the presumption that the evolution of programs in areas such as exploration and aeronautics would dramatically alter the types of skills needed by NASA, as well as their numbers and distribution. The SEITT developed a spreadsheet listing 110 “workforce competencies” currently in the NASA workforce and defined in the agency’s Competency Management System. It then worked through the headquarters mission directorate offices to characterize the relevance of each competency and chose a time designator (present to 2011, 2012 to 2018, beyond 2018) for when the competency might be needed, or how it would be trending. The team sought to identify lists of skill areas that will be needed by each NASA mission directorate for the three time periods. Its analysis has focused on what skills will be needed but not on the size of the workforce in competency areas. A key assumption for the analysis was that there would be 10 “healthy” NASA field centers during this entire period. Among the SEITT findings noted by Dawsey were the following: All skills represented in the current NASA workforce are required to some degree; No new skills were identified that do not currently exist within the current NASA workforce; Forty percent of all skills were identified as critical to multiple NASA mission directorates; Fifty percent were identified as being critical to a single mission directorate; All mission directorates recognized the criticality of two skills—systems engineering and program/project management; Eighty percent of skills are directly related to human exploration work; Reductions in the shuttle/space station contractor workforce are projected to affect a far greater number of skills than will reductions in the civil service workforce; and The definition of work content and required positions in the NASA mission directorates is still not yet mature enough to plan the numbers of employees needed with a particular skill or their center locations beyond a very short horizon. 1 U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the total federal government attrition rate to be about 7 percent per year and the attrition rate for the total U.S workforce to be running recently at above 40 percent per year.
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report Dawsey also noted that the agency is currently prohibited from laying off employees (a so-called reduction in force, or RIF) until spring 2007. Dawsey concluded by noting that NASA’s work on a workforce strategy will be used in a report to Congress in April 2006. Jerry W. Simpson, from NASA’s Program Analysis and Evaluation Office, provided additional information to the committee on February 22. The SEITT identified 88 competencies inside NASA most directly related to human exploration. Simpson noted that 28 percent of the 110 competencies on NASA’s master list of competencies were estimated to have increased demand during the near term (2006 to 2011), 16 percent were estimated to have a decreasing near-term demand, and 16 of the skill areas were identified as not being primary for any of the mission directorates. (See Appendix E for NASA’s list of competencies and the number of employees currently possessing them.) But the SEITT’s overall conclusion was that too many unknowns exist to develop firm strategies for workforce hiring. Among the remaining uncertainties, Simpson cited expected but undefined changes in aeronautics programs, uncertain schedules for the Shuttle program, the effects of a buyout conducted in the middle of the SEITT study, and the nature of the continuing development of the exploration program over the 15-year span of interest. At the committee’s February meeting, NASA representatives also noted that the problem with near-term “uncovered capacity” was unlikely to be a one-time (current) event or a situation confined to only a few centers, but it would probably occur at nearly all centers at some point in the future as programs and projects transitioned. They also noted that NASA’s initial modeling of longer-term workforce dynamics suggests that one of the primary factors affecting management of the NASA workforce is the degree to which NASA conducts R&D work internally versus having it done by a contractor—the so-called “make/buy” factor. NASA’s civil service workforce is a small fraction of the total combined workforce engaged in NASA projects. Small changes in how this total workload is assigned to civil servants or to contractors can create large changes in the demand for these civil servants. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS In summary, based on the presentations noted above and on ensuing discussions during the workshop, NASA’s workforce issues can be thought of in terms of three timescales: 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; Mid-term, present to 2012—corresponds with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and completion of International Space Station construction, and the period for development of the crew exploration vehicle and the early development of the lunar exploration hardware; and Long-term, post-2012—the period during which NASA will be conducting full-scale development of the lunar exploration hardware. Addressing the immediate near-term issue is outside the committee’s charge and beyond its ability to offer timely advice. The committee understands that NASA has concentrated heavily on the immediate near-term problem. However, except for the results of some modeling of age and retirement eligibility demographics, the committee received little or no information about the extent to which NASA has conducted analyses or planning for 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. During the workshop NASA did not present information about plans or options for training activities to address mid- and long-term agency needs. The committee did not see any information about whether or how the agency might be coordinating with other agencies (e.g., the
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report Department of Defense (DOD)) that are facing similar workforce concerns. DOD has created several programs to develop systems engineers. There was no indication that NASA is working with DOD on these programs. The committee also notes that one of the primary factors affecting management of the NASA workforce is the degree to which NASA conducts R&D work internally versus using a contractor. Administrator Griffin has stated his intention to perform more work in-house at NASA. This decision could have substantial impacts on the number and type of employees the agency will need.
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