What Will NASA’s Future Workforce Look Like?
The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics today examined whether NASA’s current workforce strategy is putting in place the proper tools to meet future agency needs. The verdict: more has to be done to ensure that NASA will be able to attract and retain the workforce it will need to carry out its core missions in science, aeronautics, and exploration.
"Ensuring that NASA has the right workforce for the future is going to be no small task and we owe it both to the highly talented NASA employees as well as to the broader aerospace community to make sure NASA and Congress 'get it right' in attempting to shape NASA’s future workforce," stated Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO).
This subcommittee today heard from a series of witnesses, including a representative of NASA’s main employee union on what they think NASA is doing right - as well as what they think needs correcting in NASA’s effort to sustain and grow the best workforce possible.
"NASA’s workforce depends upon both civil servants and private contractors to carry out the agency’s activities," added Rep. Udall. "Currently, the challenge of achieving an appropriate balance between the two is being made more difficult by a budget request that forces ill-advised cuts to NASA’s aeronautics, microgravity life and physical sciences, and long-term technology development programs, as well as to parts of NASA’s space and Earth sciences activities."
In fact, those cuts are hurting researchers across-the-board: at NASA Centers, at universities, and at companies and other organizations. The cuts are also diminishing the amount of productive research that can be undertaken at each of those places.
Science Democrats fear these cuts could end up discouraging the emerging generation of scientists and engineers from pursuing careers in space and aeronautics at NASA - something an agency with an aging workforce can ill afford.
A recent National Research Council (NRC) workforce report found a troubling skewed age distribution for NASA’s scientists and engineers, and the lack of hiring of sufficient numbers of younger people. NASA’s response to the NRC report stated that "Opportunities to bring in young talent will continue to be restricted as the civil service workforce undergoes further downsizing, reflecting the strong emphasis on the Vision for Space Exploration and the curtailment of other agency programs." It thus appears that NASA has no good plan for addressing the NRC’s concern.
Testimony and remarks by the National Research Council’s Dr. David Black also noted, "The Committee concludes that the ability to recruit and strategically retain the needed workforce will depend fundamentally on the perception of long-term stability of the Vision for Space Exploration and a sustainable national consensus on NASA’s mission…we need to think about what that really means."
"This isn’t a workforce issue, it’s a budget issue," added Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA). "This workforce dilemma is a direct result of the Administration’s unwillingness to propose a NASA budget level sufficient to fund the additional demands imposed by the President’s Exploration Initiative on NASA."
Many questions remain as to the makeup of NASA’s future workforce. NASA has been criticized for the cuts made to its aeronautics program, its long-term technology development program, and its microgravity sciences program in order to provide funding for its near-term exploration funding priorities. With respect to the latter, the NRC testimony notes that "It is easy to turn off communities with budget decisions, but it is not as easy to turn them on in a timely manner at some point in the future."
"I’m hopeful this is simply the first in a series of hearings to determine the best path forward to ensuring that NASA’s workforce remains vital and productive," concluded Rep. Udall. "We owe that to our current workers and future employees."