NASA sizes up genius shortage

NASA officials face a genius shortage — not exactly a run-of-the mill problem, but fitting for an agency charted to improve life here, extend life there and find life beyond, as Administrator Sean O'Keefe puts it.

"One of the greatest challenges before the agency today is having the people — the human capital — available to forge ahead and make the future breakthroughs tomorrow's everyday reality," O'Keefe testified July 18 to the House Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

NASA has one of the most technical and highly trained science and engineering workforces in the federal government; more than 50 percent of NASA employees have graduate degrees, according to subcommittee research.

"To be successful, they need to be world-class if they are expected to break new ground in science and technology, explore the universe or pioneer exciting discoveries here on Earth and beyond," O'Keefe said.

To bring in talent, NASA is developing an agencywide, integrated workforce planning and analysis system, among other steps.

The system will track the distribution of employees across programs, capture critical competencies and skills, determine management and leadership depth, and facilitate gap studies, according to David Walker, NASA's comptroller general.

The project is part of a larger organizational movement at NASA that has the agency's integrated financial management program at its core. The financial system, which is now being deployed, houses personnel information that can be used to analyze the workforce.

"Although NASA is in the very early stages of this transformation, it is already undertaking initiatives to reshape and strengthen its workforce," Walker testified at the hearing.

The combination of attrition, downsizing, private competition and, some say, outsourcing has brought the agency to a critical juncture. Additional trends, such as an impending retirement wave and a shortage of students pursuing degrees in science, mathematics and engineering, have compounded the matter.

For instance, nearly 25 percent of the agency's workforce will be eligible for retirement within five years, according to O'Keefe.

"Eliminating federal positions and rushing to contract out as much government work as possible, rather than building and planning for a transition to the next generation of NASA employees who were dedicated to career service with the agency, has made the coming retirement wave challenges truly daunting for NASA," testified Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

The space agency currently has needs in fields that include information technology, nanotechnology and systems engineering, according to O'Keefe.

"In other professional areas such as financial management, acquisition and project management, a lack of depth is becoming detrimental to our ability to manage our resources and programs," he said.

The workforce system is designed to point NASA in a better direction by changing how the agency handles recruiting and staffing.

The system, which is the human resources element of the integrated financial management program, will integrate existing workforce tools and add other capabilities, said Brian Dunbar, a spokesman for NASA. So far, the agency has fully implemented one of its components, the resume management project (see story, Page 26).

NASA also has forwarded draft legislation to Congress that would provide additional flexibility and authority for attracting and retaining employees.

The federal employee union has criticized the proposals, calling instead for a culture change that advances loyalty and dedication as key values. "People with lots of education are not somehow a [separate breed] who care nothing for stability, support, continuity and salary," said Jacqueline Simon, AFGE public policy director.

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Fighting a brain drain

According to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's testimony July 18 to the House Science Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, major challenges to NASA's workforce include:

* A shortage of students pursuing degrees in fields of critical importance to the agency. Meanwhile, demand for technical expertise is increasing.

* A lack of diversity in nationwide applicant pool.

* A loss of skills and institutional knowledge through downsizing during the past decade.

* An impending retirement wave, with about 25 percent of NASA's employees eligible to retire within five years.

* An alarming attrition pattern among recent hires.

* Low interest in government employment and competition from the private sector.

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