NASA Contractors Cope With Increasing Shortage Of Employees And Prospective Hires

GREENBELT, Md. – Any changes that President Obama may make in the U.S. space program should be made swiftly, to reduce anxiety and uncertainty caused by rumors churning throughout industry, according to Eric H. Thoemmes, vice president with space systems and operations at Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

And whatever course is set for NASA, it then should be consistent and reliable, Thoemmes said. "You need stable funding, stable requirements," or else "programs get in trouble," he added.

"People run from this [industry] if there is a high degree of instability in this field," he said. At the same time, he and other contractors praised Obama for a rough budget outline that seems to promise sufficient funding for NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010. Obama will release a detailed budget next month spelling out just what programs will receive financially.

John Schumacher, vice president in the Washington office of Aerojet, said that an Obama budget outline released recently pegs the NASA budget total at about $18 billion, which is "healthy … pretty good."

Schumacher and Thoemmes spoke at a Space Symposium that the American Aeronautical Society held in a hotel near Goddard Space Flight Center.

Changing requirements and faulty cost estimates can land programs in trouble, Thoemmes said.

The U.S. space program needs leadership, enunciating just what NASA should be doing, and why. While that can involve leaders other than the White House occupant, President Obama should speak out on space at least once a year, Thoemmes said.

While may NASA contractors are concerned that the space agency may have less money to spend on buying systems, contractors also are worried about a shortage that already exists and promises to worsen: a lack of qualified personnel.

The employee-shortage problem is driven three ways:

  • Not enough U.S. students are taking difficult math, science, technology and other courses.
  • Some current employees may drift away to other professions when space shuttles stop flying and NASA has no manned space missions for half a decade beginning next year (or they move to other occupations out of fear of mass layoffs)
  • A huge number of NASA contractor employees who began their careers in the heady days at the birth of the space age, in the 1960s, now are ready for retirement.

Contractors, in response, have adopted ways to cope with the shortage, they said at the symposium. They responded to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report.

For example, Lawrence H. Williams, vice president with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, said the company posts all of its job openings on its website, http://www.spacex.com on the Web.

As well, SpaceX offers $5,000 for people who refer applicants who are then hired. However, SpaceX hasn’t at this time offered bonuses to applicants who accept positions with the firm, Williams said.

Further, SpaceX would support any move by the federal Office of Personnel Management to hire more private investigator contractors to perform background security clearance checks on newly hired employees, he said.

At Lockheed, the company is striving to retain employees who otherwise would retire, according to Thoemmes. "We are inspiring folks on the verge of retirement to stay on a little bit longer," luring them with offers of flexible work schedules, Thommes said.

If they can spend more time with their families, while also continuing to work, "they’re not leaving" Lockheed, he said.

James A. Vedda, senior policy analyst with Aerospace Corp., said innovation in the space industry has slowed, moving at a slower pace compared to that in the information technology or health fields.

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