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New Workforce Orbit—Relaunch at NASA

September 18, 2009
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In 2010, NASA’s space shuttle program is expected to end after 29 years of flight. Its last flight also marks a crossroads for the thousands of NASA and contractor engineers and scientists whose lives and work have been tied for years to the launch schedules and missions of the shuttle fleet.

These highly trained and skilled individuals might not be willing to wait the minimum five years before the United States can put humans into orbit again with NASA’s new Constellation space program, which will succeed the space shuttle. They might not choose to start over again, building the Constellation spacecraft elements from concept to launch.

Instead, they might retire along with the space shuttle fleet. If that happens, a lot of valuable experience and knowledge would walk out the door—experience that the Constellation program needs for space- craft development, manufacture and eventual operations.

Even in government, it’s rare to see an entire program come to an end. As in business when a company is acquired, the implementation of the Constellation is forcing NASA to face a massive shift in strategy and philosophy while grappling with management challenges and workforce realignment.

The agency must figure out which people and skills it needs and which people can be let go through attrition or layoffs, despite significant uncertainty about what the Constellation fleet of space vehicles will look like and what its capabilities will be. NASA and its contractors have to make these workforce changes with the almost certain knowledge that just a few years after experienced people are laid off, their skills will be needed again when the Constellation moves from the development phase to actual spaceflights.

Dealing with these challenges would be difficult enough if plans at NASA were certain. But in May, the Obama administration launched an independent review of all human spaceflight activities to ensure the country is on the right path. The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee is headed by Norman Augustine, well known for his leadership in science and technology. Its report is due this month.

Depending on the conclusions of the committee, the shuttle may fly beyond 2010. But unless NASA’s budget is increased substantially over the next few years, there aren’t enough funds to simultaneously pay for personnel to fly the space shuttle, operate the International Space Station and develop and build the new Constellation program.

NASA’s budget pays for both its civil service and contractor workforces. In 2009, according to the agency’s latest figures, the space shuttle budget is just less than $3 billion. The Constellation budget is just more than $3 billion, for a total of roughly $6 billion. By 2013, the Constellation budget will total about $5.4 billion, and shuttle program dollars will be zeroed out. That’s a net reduction in the overall budget of $600 million between 2009 and 2013, which means that some shuttle program workers will inevitably lose jobs.

Both NASA and its contractors are facing up to the expected changes with every tool at their disposal. A 2005 congressional ban on reductions in force at NASA means the agency can’t lay off large numbers of people. Shuttle contractor companies, however, must reduce their shuttle workforce, whether it’s through attrition, moving people to Constellation or layoffs.

Political pressures affect all the parties, of course, but how NASA and its contractors deal with their diverse challenges will dictate how soon and how efficiently the new Constellation space vehicles will fly. If the space community lacks the right skills, the right expertise and the right management, it will take longer to define and build the Constellation program’s space vehicles—and once they are built and flying, the missions may not be as successful as we’ve come to expect. The nation’s pre-eminence in space for the next few decades will be determined by how well these shuttle and Constellation program workforce uncertainties are resolved.

Maintaining engagement
With no NASA reductions in force permitted, only attrition by retirement or resignation can significantly reduce the agency’s civil service numbers as the shuttle program comes to an end.

“NASA has one of the lowest attrition rates in government,” says Toni Dawsey, the agency’s associate administrator for human capital management. Agency statistics show that although 12 percent of the agency’s 18,000 employees are currently eligible for retirement, only about 3 percent retire each year.

“We think people who don’t go the year before the shuttle stops flying—or who were going to retire anyway—will go after the program ends. So we do anticipate an increase in retirements afterwards,” says Sue Liebert, NASA’s lead for human capital for the shuttle program at Johnson Space Center. “But we don’t expect a big spike.”

Assuming that’s true, it leaves NASA facing one big workforce issue.

“How do you keep people engaged through the transition for the rest of the shuttle program and then into Constellation?” asks Michael Kincaid, deputy director for HR at the Johnson Space Center. “Civil servants have jobs, so the question is, ‘What will I be doing?’ We’re trying to communicate that there will be meaningful work, and we’re working with managers to do that.”

It’s something the agency has been considering for four years.

“I give NASA a lot of credit for trying to be very strategic and thoughtful in their planning,” says Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office and the author of several GAO reports on the workforce challenges NASA faces as the shuttle program ends. “They’ve been mapping skills for the next program and figuring out how to translate those into people requirements and how they map back to the current workforce.”

NASA surveyed its civil service shuttle workforce of approximately 1,500 people in the last year to reveal employee concerns. Those include “losing the team they’re working with—especially the contractor members,” says Paul Cruz, the HR development representative for the shuttle program office at Johnson Space Center. “Some people want to know today what they’ll be doing in a year. Some people are worried that all the good jobs will be gone. They’re worried about the skills they’ll need. They fear the unknown.”

In response, NASA has worked to make leadership more visible through regular “all-hands” face-to-face meetings. The agency has improved communications with employees and made sure they know training for new skills will be available. Web sites specific to the agency’s centers, such as the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, are being built to provide news on the transition and to help employees find positions that need their skills—or to help them find new opportunities.

“Matrix management,” in which NASA work groups are assigned to support both the shuttle and Constellation programs, is in place at the Johnson and Kennedy centers.

“This makes the most efficient use of the workforce and also gives employees training in new programs,” says Tracy Anania, director of HR for Kennedy Space Center. Under matrix management, personnel who usually work on the shuttle program can work on Constellation too, learning new skills on the job or seeing how existing skills fit. Indeed, retraining science and engineering personnel may be easy. “It looks very straightforward to train an engineer to go from operations to acquisition and development,” says Joel Kearns, space operations mission directorate transition manager at NASA headquarters. “The change doesn’t look too disruptive.”

The only specialized skills that NASA seems to be missing for the shuttle-to-Constellation transition are systems engineering and project management. “We have time to flex and fix those challenges,” Kincaid says.

In addition to these tangible change-management issues are the intangible ones: dealing with grief for the end of a program that has been a way of life for many civil servants. “We’re offering grief counseling, including training for managers to deal with it, and making sure people know about our employee assistance program for it,” Cruz says.

Events also are being arranged to “show what the shuttle program has meant,” Liebert says. “We may have some resiliency training, such as what we did after Columbia,” the space shuttle that disintegrated on its return to Earth in 2003. Peer counselors will help employees talk about their stress, how to handle the end of the program and how to go through the steps of grieving. They’ll also discuss ways people can take care of themselves and colleagues. “The message [of the Columbia counseling] was that we can help each other,” Liebert says. “Most people found it helpful.”

Contractors gear up for change
NASA workforce projections suggest that as many as 7,000 of the total 13,000 shuttle contractor employees could lose their jobs as the program winds down, with the bulk of those losses following the last flight in 2010.

The challenge for contractor companies is to retain personnel with the critical skills needed to complete the remaining shuttle missions, even though those personnel are well aware that most of their jobs will end not long after that last flight. NASA contractor companies will shift as many shuttle employees as possible to the Constellation program, while simultaneously helping the laid-off workers find new jobs, even though their skills might be needed again in four or five years.

“We are putting plans into place to keep the skills we need,” says Norm Gookins, vice president of HR and administration for United Space Alliance, NASA’s prime contractor for space shuttle operations, which includes tasks such as vehicle processing, flight control and astronaut training. “For the most part, this workforce has worked on the one program their entire career,” Gookins says.

To keep people with essential shuttle spaceflight operations skills on the job through the last mission, United Space Alliance instituted completion bonuses. To make layoffs easier on all employees, including those who must leave before the end of the shuttle program and those needed until the end, the company also instituted enhanced severance payments.

The program pays employees one week of salary for each year of service. Employees must have a minimum of four years of service to qualify for the enhanced payments, and the program pays for a maximum of 26 years on the job. Personnel needed through the last shuttle flight can receive both completion bonuses and enhanced severance.

For those transitioning to the new program, Gookins says, “We’ll need the same skills for Constellation as for shuttle, such as technical administration and organization, but fewer of them.” For all employees, whether they stay or go, United Space Alliance is providing a range of counseling and training services, including career planning, long-term planning, skills training and help with dealing with the emotional consequences of the transition. Line managers are also receiving training so they can coach their employees and tell them what help is available.

United Space Alliance is also seeking to diversify its scope of work beyond space shuttle and space station operations to include operations support for the Department of Defense and for international space programs.

Gookins says the goal is to transition some employees to new work. “But there will still be some layoffs,” he says. United Space Alliance will help laid-off employees find other jobs, and enhanced severance pay will help cushion job loss.

At NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans, Lockheed Martin Human Space Flight builds the external fuel tanks that hold the fuel that a space shuttle’s main engines burn during the first few minutes of flight. The company is also doing development work at Michoud on Constellation’s Orion spacecraft, which will carry humans into space.

Cheryl A. Alexander, director of HR for Lockheed Martin Human Space Flight, says that the primary challenges leading up to the space shuttle retirement include maintaining employee morale during reduction in force, coupled with the need to retain employees to support the external tank “flyout,” or completion of the last shuttle mission.

Some Lockheed Martin employees who worked on the external tanks have already transferred to the Orion project at Michoud, Alexander says. But the five or more years between the shuttle’s last flight and the start of Constellation flights is long enough that the company’s skilled employees might leave not only their jobs, but the New Orleans area as well.

Like United Space Alliance, Lockheed Martin is offering retention incentives to keep employees on the job through the manufacture of the last external tank and its flight on the final shuttle mission. The company is also participating in many community and state career transition and training activities to help keep these highly paid, high-tech people in the New Orleans area—or at least in state.

For employees who’ll likely be laid off, Lockheed Martin offers after-hours training in manufacturing and production skills such as welding and composite drilling, as well as coaching in career development and instruction in Microsoft’s Project software, a commonly used project management program in aerospace. The company is also working with other Lockheed Martin divisions to try to place affected Michoud employees in other positions.

Both United Space Alliance and Lockheed Martin offer employees counseling. They’re dealing with a lot: emotional fallout from the end of the shuttle program, the hiatus of spaceflight while Constellation is being developed and the loss of jobs, friends and a way of life.

The two companies also emphasize that they’re maintaining an open dialogue with employees. “It’s a dynamic environment,” Gookins says. “We don’t always know the answers, but we try to get them out as soon as we do know. Once the Human Space Flight Plans Committee finishes its work and the government chooses the next goals for the country’s space program, NASA and its contractors will have the answers they need to determine the fate of the national space workforce.

For thousands of workers, the answers can’t come soon enough.

Workforce Management, August 17, 2009, p. 16-20 -- Subscribe Now!

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