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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report 5 Findings and Recommendations The committee heard briefings about NASA’s ongoing process of characterizing the skills of the current NASA civil service staff and assessing the mix of skills that NASA will need to implement the exploration vision. The committee recognizes the difficulty of this task and appreciates the efforts by NASA to date. 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 has limited the committee’s ability to assess exactly what needs to be done. The workforce issues that NASA faces as it moves to implement the vision for space exploration are varied and are dependent on the timeframe in question. Over the next 5 years NASA needs to meet the challenge of two new major development programs while phasing out the space shuttle. In the longer term, NASA will have to learn to structure its workforce in accord with a model of the required makeup of that workforce rather than to simply let it evolve. This shaping needs to be done in a manner that will ensure that the agency always has an in-house staff with the appropriate skill mix to guide and manage future major development projects effectively, as well as to ensure that longer-term needs are not put at risk by near-term personnel actions. A key factor in assessing whether NASA currently has the staff it needs is the “make/buy” ratio—i.e., the ratio of development work that will be performed inside NASA versus by contractors. The key is not just having enough employees in the right skill boxes, but also having people with adequate experience to do the job. All of these considerations highlight a compelling need for NASA to develop a strategic workforce plan that deals with the next 5 years and to lay the foundation for a longer-term process that NASA has never before attempted and that is difficult to do, yet nevertheless is vital for the agency’s success in implementing the exploration vision. 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 heard from many sources—including representatives of NASA, the Department of Defense (DOD), academia, and industry—that there may be shortages of qualified employees in specific skill areas and that there are concerns over whether the experience base in the current workforce is adequate to meet current and expected future needs in those selected areas of expertise. However, the committee has seen no compelling evidence of a looming, broadly based shortage in the supply of aerospace S&E workforce employees to meet NASA’s needs. The most frequently cited critical skills are ones that are acquired via real-work experience. Many of those who spoke to the committee cited systems engineering as an example of the type of skill that can only be perfected on the job. A number of venues and programs outside NASA are already in place and probably available to NASA, and there are opportunities for non-NASA experts to serve in mentoring assignments inside NASA. To be effective development or mentoring strategies, both kinds of exchanges will have to include hands-on work opportunities. The committee understands that ethics laws and conflict-of-interest constraints can pose obstacles, as can a lack of availability of training and competitive compensation. Also the necessary programs to respond to the need to enhance and expand the skills of the NASA workforce will require explicit resources, management commitment, and NASA-industry collaboration and coordination. Nevertheless, to address those skill areas where there are
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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report potential shortages (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 non-government sector (industry, academia, and non-government organizations). The committee recognizes that this is difficult to accomplish, but believes that it is important to try to overcome the obstacles that prevent it from occurring. The interest and the willingness of current and potential highly qualified employees to continue or to seek employment in space research and development depends not only on their passion for space exploration but also on their belief that it will offer them viable careers. Later recruitment will be especially challenging in areas where NASA curtails or terminates work in the near term, thereby handicapping or preventing later restoration of that workforce segment in, for instance, areas such as astrobiology, life sciences, and microgravity research. 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. Similarly, when NASA produces instability in the institutions that provide its workforce, as it is now doing in microgravity science, it creates a perception that space exploration is a bad career option. 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). 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 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.
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