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What Happens When the Senior Scientists and Engineers Retire?

Researchers work in the  Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation (SECCHI) instrument being built at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC Researchers work in the Sun Earth Connection Coronal and Heliospheric Investigation (SECCHI) instrument being built at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC NASA

More than two-thirds of NASA employees are scientists and engineers, many of whom are nearing retirement. In fact, NASA has one of the oldest workforces in the federal government. So what’s the plan for recruiting new scientific, engineering and medical leadership talent?

Gina Scott Ligon, along with her University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues JoDee Friedly and Victoria Kennel, offers an answer in a new report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government, in the context of the broader national shortage of talent in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine professions.

The growth of STEMM jobs is anticipated to increase faster than the supply of students studying in these fields. In fact, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimates there will be 1 million fewer science, technology, engineering and math graduates during the next decade than the nation is expected to need, unless changes are made.

The federal government has developed a strategy to close this gap for the nation as a whole, but has yet to develop a plan to close the gap for itself. The federal government is a major employer of STEMM graduates and will need more in the years ahead. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, must attract highly qualified scientists and engineers. And the challenge isn’t just new hires. Agencies also need to plan long-term for career development and succession planning for leaders in technical agencies. Qualified executives cannot readily be hired from the outside, and preparing scientists and engineers to be leaders—not just experts—is an art.

There is no governmentwide plan to recruit and train entry-level STEMM employees, nor is there a concerted effort to groom mid-career scientists, engineers and doctors for senior leadership positions in their agencies. Responsibility for recruitment and succession planning is left to each agency.

Drivers for Action

The authors point to several drivers that create the urgency in technical agencies to develop a succession planning strategy. First, the baby boom generation is approaching retirement. While this has been talked about for years, it is now occurring. With the turnover in the workforce, there is also turnover at the top. In addition, recent budget pressures have either reduced vacancies available or have left vacancies unfilled indefinitely.

Once an agency’s leaders agree to address their STEMM pipeline—both at the entry and at the senior leadership levels—they need to ensure there is an effective partnership between program and line managers and the human resources office. Dale Colbert, a manager at the Health and Human Services Department, says it often takes years of expertise in a technical domain to even know what skills to recruit in technical positions. As a result, leaders must be actively engaged in the recruitment and hiring process; it cannot be delegated to the HR office. Likewise, the technical leaders need to leverage the domain expertise of HR leaders to ensure the right development framework and competencies for leadership are developed for these individuals.

The authors outline steps for an effective succession planning framework in their report. The first is formulating a strategy for succession planning.

A Succession Plan

The first step, the researchers say, is to proactively develop a plan of action. For STEMM positions, this plan needs to be different. “Our implicit assumption has been that the key to our future success is to be more like we are today. I am not sure this is true for the sciences, which change more rapidly than other fields change,” says Tim Persons, chief scientist at the Government Accountability Office.  As a result, the strategic objective isn’t continuity, but rather being able to predict the needs for future capabilities. This can’t be done solely by human capital staff, it requires a strong partnership with technical professionals.

But it is not just technical skills that will matter. Pearson cites how the changing mission of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has dictated a need for different types of scientific leaders. With EPA emphasizing greater community outreach, scientists in leadership positions needed to communicate in public town halls, among other skills. Understanding the strategic direction of the agency is an important element in developing any succession plan, especially in technical fields that require a long lead time to develop staff.

Second, the organizational culture must ingrain succession planning as part of the job requirements. The U.S. Strategic Command has created a three-year “high potential” leadership program that rotates employees through different roles so they can be assessed for appropriate positions. The Coast Guard and NASA also understand “the importance of shaping their replacements from day one,” according to the authors.

Third, a succession strategy should not focus only on vertical movement within an agency. The leaders of the Office of Naval Research understand the importance of exposing STEMM employees to other technical career options within their offices. The office does this by sponsoring periodic career days to acquaint staff with projects in other parts of the organization. A horizontal move to a new function within the organization is a valuable way of enriching careers and keeping technical staff curious and engaged.

What’s Next

The authors conclude their report with two recommendations to agency leaders. First, have no shame—borrow best practices from other technical agencies. Second, proactively use mentoring, job rotation and project-based learning experiences to cultivate leadership talent in house. For many of the technical positions, it is unlikely that executive-level technical talent can be hired from the outside, so agencies need to develop a strategy to grow from within.

(Image via KuLouKu/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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