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NASA Workforce Too Small, But Buyouts Rife; Industry Open To Contracts

By | June 19, 2006

      Even as NASA faces a mass exodus of top-talent employees reaching retirement age, it has bought out 1,138 employees in the past four years, raising the specter of a workforce shortage that the aerospace industry stands ready to fill if NASA outsources its work.

      This looming shortage of NASA workers with critical skills comes as the agency, still recovering from the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, rallies and prepares for the much greater challenge of realizing President Bush’s vision that includes missions to the moon, Mars and beyond incoming years and decades.

      Those were some of the highlights of a House Science Committee space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing, in which NASA, academic, union and industry witnesses testified.

      First, the problem: NASA full-time permanent employment has tumbled to 16,758 in the current fiscal year 2006 that ends Sept. 30, plummeting 28.7 percent from 23,499 in fiscal 1994, a loss only slightly offset by increases in term and temporary employees.

      And the slump will become worse.

      “More than 30 percent of NASA’s employees are currently eligible for regular or early out retirement,” according to a subcommittee paper. “NASA estimates that by 2011, 28 percent of its engineers and 45 percent of its scientists will be eligible to retire.

      “Furthermore, less than 20 percent of NASA’s overall workforce is under 40, and less than 10 percent of NASA’s scientists are under 40.”

      This means trouble, according to Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the subcommittee chairman, noting that the National Academies of Science found that “NASA does not currently have the expertise within its current workforce to support the many new developments planned,” referring to Bush’s vision for space exploration.

      To resolve this problem, NASA should attract young people to careers in the aeronautics and space agency, witnesses said.

      However, one witness said NASA shoots itself in the foot by leaving open the threat of reductions in force, known as RIFs, (layoffs in civilian parlance), creating uncertainty about job security among those currently employed by NASA who decide to resign before being fired, and among prospective recruits for the agency such as students.

      The best and brightest NASA employees say to themselves, “I’m not going to stick around and get RIFed,” said Lee Stone, legislative representative for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the largest NASA union.

      Stone added that a suspension of NASA RIFs will expire in March, and that creates uncertainty among employees and potential job recruits.

      He called upon NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to announce publicly that “there will be no RIFs under my watch,” a move that Stone predicted would “do wonders for morale” among space agency workers.

      But a NASA human resources leader argued that huge layoffs aren’t in the works.

      “I don’t see that we have to lay off 800 or 1,000 employees” whose talents are underused as some NASA programs shrink, Toni Dawsey, NASA assistant administrator for human capital management, told the subcommittee members.

      She also said contractors are working with NASA to help resolve these issues.

      But Calvert, the subcommittee chairman, noted that Griffin has said that “NASA already contracts out too much of its development work and needs greater in-house expertise to better manage its programs.”

      That would mean NASA, a government agency, would hire more workers. But the government already is drowning n red ink. From budget surpluses of up to $238 billion a year in the Clinton administration, federal finances have plunged to deficits in the $300 billion-$400 billion per year range in the Bush administration. Funds are scarce.

      One possible solution: the aerospace industry could provide NASA with the effect of an increase in its workforce strength, without NASA actually hiring more federal employees.

      Further, if NASA attempts to hire more employees, it will have to compete head-on with industry, which also is hiring workers to fulfill defense and other contracts, noted John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). The group includes hundreds of defense and aerospace contractors.

      If the space agency attempts to resolve its workforce shortage problems by hiring more highly skilled workers, “NASA’s going to find it’s harder to compete” against industry, which has a workforce some 20 times larger, he indicated.

      Saying that he is speaking for himself and not necessarily as a statement of official AIA policy, Douglass said it would make sense for NASA to obtain the workforce muscle it needs from outside the agency.

      “We can expand and contract” the industry workforce “easier than the government” can alter its payroll size, Douglass said.

      “It would probably be more cost-effective to pull people from industry,” Douglass told the lawmakers.

      But that doesn’t mean that Douglass or AIA don’t see a role for government and its workers.

      For example, Douglass said, NASA and other government agencies are far better suited to performing basic research, citing work of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, more commonly known as DARPA.

      Basic research often involves years of expensive work with little hope of a quick, near-term payoff.

      Douglass urged Congress to fund creation of a basic research agency for NASA, much as DARPA has been for the Department of Defense.

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