NASA urged to consider morale in reshaping workforce

Retirement of the space shuttle and ensuing shift in mission will create substantial challenges, GAO cautions.

NASA has made progress in planning for its future workforce needs, but the agency's changing mission will pose significant challenges for human capital planning and implementation, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

A 2005 GAO report expressed concerns about NASA's efforts to transform its workforce in line with the President's Vision for Space Exploration, which called for the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and quick movement toward a return to the moon and a manned mission to Mars.

Developments since then "represent credible progress in enhancing the workforce and preparing for the future," Thursday's report (GAO-07-1004) concluded. But the rapid shift in mission once the shuttle is retired will present a substantial challenge.

"The magnitude of these changes and their implication for future workforce needs will require NASA to accurately measure its progress, identify gaps or obstacles that need to be addressed, and sustain a high degree of coordination with its centers, and work is just getting under way," the report stated.

GAO praised both NASA's centralized strategic planning process and the efforts of the agency's 10 centers to recruit and retain employees and to maintain institutional memory as a generation of workers begins to retire.

The report noted that NASA adopted a new governance model for human capital planning this year, placing the Office of Human Capital Management on a level with the Office of Program and Institutional Integration and the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation. NASA Chief Human Capital Officer Toni Dawsey, who championed the new governance structure, said in an interview that she hoped it would help move the agency away from planning for its workforce needs solely on a year-to-year budget cycle.

"When I first got here, the budget people basically drove workforce planning," Dawsey said. "It's one thing to operate that way when you have a stable workforce and a stable mission . . . . [But] what people, what competencies are we going to need two years out, five years out . . . . Human capital has been approved to be at the top and the center of that [planning] process."

GAO warned that in its workforce planning, NASA must be aware of the effect on employee morale. In particular, the report noted that the use of flexibilities like incentive bonuses may help recruit new workers and retain ones with critical skills, but that the use of other flexibilities like buyouts might make employees feel pressure to leave.

"While the agency is taking advantage of the flexibilities outlined in the NASA Flexiblities Act of 2004 to attract highly qualified candidates, continued buyouts and the threat of a reduction in force could create a feeling of instability among its workforce," the report noted.

Lee Stone, a legislative representative for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, NASA's largest union, agreed with that assessment but added that the manner in which NASA first introduced flexibilities increased the workforce's mistrust of buyout programs.

In 2004 "[Former NASA Administrator Sean] O'Keefe was saying we're going to lose all our older employees, it's a catastrophe if we don't have these flexibilities," Stone said. "He wanted all this authority to retain and recruit. And once they got these flexibilities, they never really used them to retain or recruit, so it was kind of a bluster to conceal something else in that bill." That something else, according to Stone, was an attempt to push through a reduction in force, something IFPTE opposed vigorously.

NASA cannot eliminate the uncertainty that will follow the retirement of the space shuttle. But GAO noted that NASA's centers are coming up with creative solutions to the issue of retaining vital knowledge for future scientists and engineers. Johnson Space Center in Houston, for example, appointed a chief knowledge officer and has started an active oral history program.

GAO's verdict is still out on NASA's attempts to update its human capital technology, to track the skills present in the workforce and to set metrics for evaluating the progress of its human capital programs. Dawsey shared those concerns, but said they aren't unique to NASA.

"We have pulled teams together to help us develop the measures and the metrics to determine the return on investment for the programs we have in place, and what we think is effective," she said. "What is it that will prove whether we have succeeded and whether we got the return on the investment that we were looking for? We're all grappling with explaining our program in terms of return."

NEXT STORY: Ditching Debt