NASA needs boomer expertise

Brain drain could mean a serious setback for the agency’s next trip to the moon

For NASA to reach the moon again, the agency needs to keep experienced employees working on Earth. However, NASA’s employee unions say the agency is not going about it the right way.

NASA has begun using a variety of new information system tools to manage its human resources challenges. The agency that President Bush has tasked to send people to the moon relies mostly on a workforce that is gearing up for retirement.

“We want to keep our best people and are doing everything we can to encourage our core technology brain trust to remain in the fold,” said Paul Curto, chief technologist in the Office of the NASA Chief Engineer. That office is responsible for designing the agency’s competency management system. NASA’s managers use the system to learn what skills employees have and match those to skills the agency will need in the future. That system, which NASA has used since May 2006, is based on the Office of Personnel Management’s GoLearn assessment system.

The agency uses other measures to minimize a brain drain, such as offering recruitment and retention bonuses and hiring retired NASA employees as contractors. The agency also has established an online, agencywide training system, named the System for Administration, Training and Educational Resources for NASA.

The Government Accountability Office reported that NASA’s workforce efforts have had positive consequences for the agency’s space mission. In an Aug. 4 report to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, GAO said NASA’s tools and incentives have helped the agency stay focused on its mission.

However, Christina Chaplain, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, said the agency faces hard work because NASA has not implemented significant portions of its management plans, including the use of performance metrics.

“Metrics are needed to show if this [management] is being done well,” Chaplain said. “NASA is still defining these metrics, so it remains to be seen if they will have the right tools for gauging success.”

Compounding the challenge of putting people on the moon is NASA’s plan to retire the current space shuttle system in 2010, officials said. That decision means the agency must also develop new space flight systems, such as the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares launch vehicles, for the mission.

The shuttle system is not the only resource that NASA could soon lose. The agency expects many of its talented employees to retire soon, a problem that other agencies will also face.

Figures from OPM show that 60 percent of the federal workforce and 90 percent of senior civilian executives will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. As many as 18.5 percent could retire by the end of fiscal 2010. The average age of NASA employees is increasing at about the same rate as the average for the rest of the government.

Officials said a significant employee loss because of retirement would hit NASA especially hard because the agency’s highly technical work requires skilled workers.

NASA’s employee unions say the agency is approaching the retirement challenge the wrong way by relying on tools, such as the agency’s competency management system. Lee Stone, legislative representative for the NASA Council of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), said competency systems can work elsewhere. But he added that the system NASA uses defines competencies too vaguely to be useful for the agency because most of its positions are highly technical or specialized.

“So you have something that says ‘we need more program managers,’ ” Stone said. “Well, what do you mean by program manager? Someone who’s measuring [sol r winds] is different from a manager who’s building the toilets on a lunar habitat.”

Some union members said NAS ’s focus on the moon landing is preventing the agency from solving long-term workforce management problems.

“If we contract out all the real work and resign ourselves to be paper pushers, we truly lose the experience in aerospace engineering, science and technology development that has served the agency well in past decades,” said Sheila Bailey, vice president of the IFPTE Local 28 chapter.

Stone said rewarding technical employees with bonuses and incentives would help NASA retain workers and attract new ones, adding that preventing a brain drain “will require much more investment in technically related people instead of running this through a human resources [department] that isn’t very qualified to carry this out.”

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