NASA juggles a mixed workforce

Contractor-heavy NASA seeks ways to improve workforce management

NASA: Balancing a Multisector Workforce to Achieve Healthy Organization (.pdf)

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NASA is trying to find a better way to manage its temporary, contractor workforce and full-time employees as it refocuses its mission on space flights to the moon and Mars. The agency also is developing a new space shuttle, the Constellation, which faces a tight deadline for its first launch in 2012.

An independent study group found that NASA faces unusual workforce challenges. Fewer than a third of the agency’s 58,000 employees are full-time civil service workers. The agency’s full-time workforce is roughly half what it was at the time of the first moon landing in 1969. Nearly 90 percent of NASA’s budget is awarded in contracts.

The study by the National Academy of Public Administration looked at how NASA manages its mixed employee/contractor workforce and concluded that the agency’s contractors should be used primarily in a surge capacity to support federal employees. Congress and NASA commissioned NAPA, a congressionally chartered organization that analyzes the workings of government, to do the study.

David Steitz, a spokesman for NASA, said the agency is working to implement NAPA’s recommendations by reviewing how it manages its federal employees and contractors. However, NASA does not plan to shrink its pool of contractors, he said.

Other NASA officials said the high ratio of contractors to federal employees is not a new trend and is not likely to change in the near future. “The ratio’s been pretty much the standard,” said Toni Dawsey, NASA’s assistant administrator of human capital management. “We expect it to stay the same.”

Budget issues often determine NASA’s decisions about what work to contract out and what work to keep in-house, said Laurie May, project director for the NAPA report.

Leaders of NASA’s largest union said they were pleased with NAPA’s recommendations that favored federal employees. Lee Stone, legislative representative of the NASA Council of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said NASA should not rely too heavily on contractors. He recalled the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which concluded that communication problems between agency officials and contractors and an excessive reliance on contractors for technical support may have contributed to the 2003 Columbia disaster.

NASA’s dependency on contractors has grown because, like many agencies, NASA has had to frequently change its mission priorities in response to administration and congressional priorities. Because of that uncertainty, NASA relies heavily on contractors and temporary workers to fill skill gaps and avoid funding complexities.

In NASA’s case, however, the extensive use of contractors has created employee retention problems and knowledge gaps, NAPA found. The problem is acute at agencies that are involved in science research, according to the NAPA report.

Like NASA, the Navy Department has also experienced a steady erosion in what it calls domain knowledge in the past several decades, resulting in an over-reliance on contractors to perform core functions, Navy Secretary Donald Winter said recently.
NAPA’s recommendations to NASAThe National Academy of Public Administration offered recommendations to NASA for managing its workforce. It advised the agency to:
  • Adopt a risk-based strategy for mitigating a potential loss of core skills.
  • Retain civil servants with critical scientific and aeronautics skills.
  • Evaluate employee skills as a basis for allocating employees to critical projects.
  • Evaluate workforce requirements at NASA’s 10 research centers.
  • Require managers to be familiar with NAPA’s Civil Servant-Contractor Decision-Making Guide so that executives can respond to skill gaps.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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