Mars Needs Women — NASA Needs Everybody

Credit: American International Television

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In the 1967 film, Mars Needs Women, a team of martians invades Earth to kidnap women to help repopulate their dying species. Shot over two weeks on a minuscule budget and padded out with stock footage, the movie obtained cult status as one of those cinematic disasters that was so bad it was unintentionally hilarious.

A half century later, NASA finds itself in a not entirely dissimilar situation. Only this problem is not nearly as funny.

The space agency lacks sufficient personnel with the proper skill sets to undertake its complex missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. A number of key programs have been affected by the shortfall already.

NASA’s workforce is also aging. More than half the agency’s employees are 50 years and older, with one-fifth  currently eligible for retirement. Finding replacement workers with the right mix of skills is not always easy as NASA faces increased competition from a growing commercial space sector.

The space agency is addressing these challenges, but it’s too early to tell how successful these efforts will be, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

Dual Strategies Pursued

The space agency is pursuing two main strategies to re-balance its workforce.

“One is focused on developing a strategic workforce plan, including determining what mix of skills and capabilities are needed in the future, and the other is focused on leveraging skills across NASA’s centers,” the GAO found. “We will be tracking NASA’s progress in this area in future reviews as capacity—having the right people and resources to resolve risk—is one of two criteria that NASA has not yet met for removal from our high-risk list.”

NASA’s Office of Human Capital Management has begun to develop the first agency-level strategic workforce plan this year.

“NASA defines strategic workforce planning as the discipline of determining the size and composition of a future workforce that is able to perform the organization’s most important functions, maintain capabilities, and fulfill key business goals while maintaining agility in a dynamic environment,” the report stated.

Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana speaks to employees at the Florida spaceport about plans for the coming year. (Credits: NASA/Frank Michaux)

The space agency also plans to improve collaboration across the agency by coordinating “the center-level human capital and financial staff and activities through the headquarters offices, rather than at each center,” the GAO said. “NASA plans to complete this transition by the end of September 2019. Other business services areas, such as procurement, also plan to move to this operational model, but have not yet started the transition.”

Officials admit that cross-center collaboration efforts run up against the very nature of NASA as a decentralized agency where most work is completed at a far-flung network of field centers.

“This barrier has proven difficult for the agency in the past and has resulted in NASA having different approaches to implementing policies and guidance at the centers,” the assessment found. “For example, in April 2014, we found that when NASA policy gave centers wide latitude in implementing export control procedures, implementation across centers was inconsistent.”

The GAO stressed that both efforts would require support at the highest levels to succeed.

“As NASA develops its first strategic workforce plan and considers taking additional steps towards a new operating model with more cross-center collaboration, it will be vital to have senior leadership’s commitment to these efforts,” the report said.

Workforce Shortages Affect Major Projects

Artist’s concept of the Mars Science Laboratory entry into the Martian atmosphere. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The GAO assessment spotlighted workforce shortages in the Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment effort managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

JPL experienced personnel shortages in flight software and in the development of a system that will sample and cache martian soil and rock samples for later retrieval and return to Earth. The shortfalls were addressed in June 2017 by prioritizing Mars 2020 over other projects, the report stated.

The field center also has been grappling with a shortage of personnel in avionics and other key areas for the Europa Clipper orbiter.

This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Project officials said these shortages have delayed development in some areas and have led the project to outsource some work to contractors,” the GAO assessment stated. “As of January 2018, project officials reported that they have seen improvements in addressing workforce shortages.”

JPL’s decision to prioritize Mars 2020 and other projects has caused workforce shortages in the design and development of instruments for the center’s Surface Water & Ocean Topography mission.

In Florida, the EGS program’s retention of  software developers is hovering at a mere 70 percent, hindering efforts to develop the infrastructure needed to launch the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.

Upgrade of the flame trench at Launch Complex 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: NASA)

“The officials attributed the contractor workforce challenges to competition in the space industry near the center in Florida,” the assessment found.

Goddard’s efforts to upgrade the space agency’s 1980’s vintage ground stations has faced shortfalls in systems engineering and business management. Flaws in systems engineering led to software not being coded correctly. GAO said these issues were largely resolved as of January 2018.

Crucial Skills Shortages

NASA’s internal assessments have identified crucial skills shortages in three main areas across the agency: guidance, navigation and control (GN&C) disciplines; scheduling, earned value management and cost estimating; and cost and pricing analyst workforce.

“An assessment of technical capabilities conducted in 2016 identified GN&C research and technology development as a discipline area that was inadequately positioned to meet mission requirements,” the GAO report stated. “In a follow-up assessment in 2017, NASA determined there have been no significant changes to the GN&C workforce since 2015. The assessment found, though, that the risk is stabilizing due, in part, to adding more early career hires.”

NASA officials report making some progress in in cost estimating and earned value management capabilities. However, scheduling remains a major challenge.

“As a result, officials said they have a scheduling effort underway to build the capability in-house by improving training and tools,” the report stated.

NASA also has made efforts to address an inadequate supply of cost and pricing analysts.

“NASA plans to form a centralized team of cost and pricing professionals to support acquisition efforts across centers,” the GAO reported. “In addition, NASA established a pricing community of practice to develop and share best practices in this area, developed training courses, and, in some instances, centers are hiring cost and pricing analysts as a part of efforts to rebuild this skill set across the agency.”

NASA’s Aging Workforce

Note: The other category includes clerical, technicians, medical and other miscellaneous occupations. (Credit: GAO)

More than half of NASA’s workforce is 50 years of age and older, with 21 percent eligible for retirement now and another 23 percent eligible to retire within the next five years, the GAO found. Employees typically remain at NASA four to seven years behind their initial retirement eligibility dates, with engineering and science personnel staying longer.

“Officials said there are both advantages and disadvantages to having an aging workforce,” the assessment found. “For example, human capital officials noted that having an aging workforce is good for maintaining institutional knowledge due to experienced staff staying longer, but that having a low attrition rate makes it more difficult for the agency to make changes to its workforce skill mix as needed.

“Officials within the Office of the Chief Engineer and Mission Support Directorate said that they were looking at ways to be more strategic in hiring or using existing capabilities to meet their skills needs,” the report added.

The GAO’s assessment of NASA’s workforce challenges follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Too Early to Determine Outcome of NASA’s Efforts to Address Workforce Challenges

Several projects covered in our review were experiencing workforce challenges, such as not having enough staff or staff with the right skills. While it is difficult to tie these workforce challenges to increases in cost, there have been instances where projects have reported schedule delays or late design changes as a result of workforce shortages. Our work has generally found that the shortage of trained acquisition personnel hinders agencies from managing and overseeing acquisition programs and contracts that have become more expensive and increasingly complex. Moreover, NASA’s own assessments indicate that there are broader workforce-related challenges that can have a negative impact on programs over the long run, if not addressed in a strategic manner. NASA is taking steps to address its findings, but it is too early to determine the outcomes. One is focused on developing a strategic workforce plan, including determining what mix of skills and capabilities are needed in the future, and the other is focused on leveraging skills across NASA’s centers. We will be tracking NASA’s progress in this area in future reviews as capacity—having the right people and resources to resolve risk—is one of two criteria that NASA has not yet met for removal from our high-risk list.

NASA Has Experienced Workforce Challenges on Major Projects

During the course of our review, we found that several major projects identified workforce challenges, including not having enough staff or staff with the right skills. To accomplish its scientific and space exploration missions, NASA relies on having a skilled civil servant and contractor workforce. While it is difficult to tie these workforce challenges to increases in cost, there have been instances where projects have reported schedule delays or late design changes as a result of workforce shortages. Further, our work has generally found that the shortage of trained acquisition personnel hinders agencies from managing and overseeing acquisition programs and contracts that have become more expensive and increasingly complex. Examples of workforce challenges identified by projects include:

  • The Mars 2020 project, which is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, experienced workforce shortages in several key areas such as flight software and for the development of a sampling and caching system that will collect and cache Martian soil and rock samples. Project officials said not having staff with the right level of experience within its sampling and caching system development contributed to the project being behind in releasing its engineering drawings. As of June 2017, project officials said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been able to address these workforce challenges largely because laboratory management prioritized staffing for the project over other projects.
  • The Europa Clipper project, which is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, experienced workforce shortages in several key areas, including avionics, since October 2016. The project has revised staffing plans several times, but continues to face workforce shortages even with NASA headquarters involvement. Project officials said these shortages have delayed development in some areas and have led the project to outsource some work to contractors. As of January 2018, project officials reported that they have seen improvements in addressing workforce shortages.
  • The SGSS project, managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, faced staffing shortfalls in key areas, such as systems engineering and business management, which contributed to late design changes. For example, a project official said the systems engineering was not done correctly before, which led to the software not being coded to the right requirements. As of January 2018, NASA officials stated that these workforce issues had largely been resolved because some positions were filled by reassigning staff to these areas and others are no longer needed.
  • The EGS program, which is managed by Kennedy Space Center, is working with its contractors to increase its software development staff retention rate, which has been a challenge. Program officials said the current retention rate is about 70 percent, but the program would like that to be higher in order to avoid additional delays in its software development efforts due to losing staff. The officials attributed the contractor workforce challenges to competition in the space industry near the center in Florida.

Further, in January 2018, the NASA Office of Inspector General found that the SWOT project, which is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, experienced workforce shortages in key fields to design and develop its instruments. The report stated that the staffing problems were driven by conflicting priorities among several other Jet Propulsion Laboratory projects, including Mars 2020, that also needed those skills. The Office of Inspector General recommended that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory director evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that the laboratory has the technical support needed for their missions. The director plans to address the recommendation through its existing processes and forums for assessing and addressing staffing resources at the laboratory.

NASA’s Assessments Indicate Broader Workforce Challenges

NASA’s own assessments indicate that there are broader workforce challenges in disciplines that are necessary to effectively manage its major projects. Since 2012, NASA has been conducting capability assessments of its technical disciplines and business services to assist in establishing a more efficient operating model that maintains critical capabilities and meets current and future mission needs. Through these efforts, NASA identified capacity gaps in the following areas:

  • Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GN&C) disciplines. An assessment of technical capabilities conducted in 2016 identified GN&C research and technology development as a discipline area that was inadequately positioned to meet mission requirements. In a follow-up assessment in 2017, NASA determined there have been no significant changes to the GN&C workforce since 2015. The assessment found, though, that the risk is stabilizing due, in part, to adding more early career hires. These assessments determined the GN&C workforce needs to be reshaped over the next decade to build future workforce skills.
  • Scheduling, earned value management, and cost estimating. A budget business services assessment conducted in 2016 recommended that the agency work with centers to regionalize access to these specialty capabilities and to leverage access to these skills across centers. Officials from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer said they have made some progress in filling gaps in cost estimating and earned value management capabilities, but scheduling expertise remains a major challenge. As a result, officials said they have a scheduling effort underway to build the capability in-house by improving training and tools.
  • Cost and pricing analyst workforce. A procurement business services assessment conducted in 2015 identified capability gaps in the cost and pricing analyst workforce. As part of assessing options to strengthen expertise associated with source evaluation boards for contract awards, NASA found that the agency had an inadequate supply of cost and pricing analysts across centers. In response to this finding, NASA plans to form a centralized team of cost and pricing professionals to support acquisition efforts across centers. In addition, NASA established a pricing community of practice to develop and share best practices in this area, developed training courses, and, in some instances, centers are hiring cost and pricing analysts as a part of efforts to rebuild this skill set across the agency.

We have also found that other agencies have experienced challenges related to their earned value management, cost estimating, and cost and pricing analysis workforces. For example, in June 2008, we found that the Coast Guard faced challenges in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of government employees in acquisition positions such as contract specialists and cost estimators, among other areas. In addition, in December 2015, we found that the Department of Defense did not meet its workforce growth goals in 3 priority career growth areas—contracting, business, which includes cost estimating and analysis, and engineering.

Another trend, the aging of NASA’s workforce, has both negative and positive effects. About 56 percent of NASA’s workforce is 50 years old and over, an increase of about 7 percentage points over the past 5 years. Officials said that NASA’s workforce is aging because NASA has a low attrition rate—about 4 percent annually—and high numbers of staff stay several years past retirement. We also found that, as of the beginning of 2018, 21 percent of the workforce is retirement eligible, about another 23 percent will become eligible in less than 5 years, and the average number of years staff that stay past initial retirement eligibility varied by occupation (see figure 9). On average, individuals remain at NASA between 4-7 years past their initial retirement eligibility date, but staff in the engineering and science occupations stay on longer than other occupations, such as professional and administrative.

Note: The other category includes clerical, technicians, medical and other miscellaneous occupations. (Credit: GAO)

Officials said there are both advantages and disadvantages to having an aging workforce. For example, human capital officials noted that having an aging workforce is good for maintaining institutional knowledge due to experienced staff staying longer, but that having a low attrition rate makes it more difficult for the agency to make changes to its workforce skill mix as needed. Officials within the Office of the Chief Engineer and Mission Support Directorate said that they were looking at ways to be more strategic in hiring or using existing capabilities to meet their skills needs.

Outcome of NASA’s Strategic Workforce and Cross-Center Planning Efforts Not Yet Known

In our review of selected agency-wide assessments and through discussions with knowledgeable NASA officials, we found that NASA has two efforts underway that may help to address some workforce challenges: strategic workforce planning and cross-center collaboration. We will be tracking the progress of these efforts in future reviews, as it is too early to determine the outcomes.

Strategic Workforce Planning: In 2016, NASA completed a human capital assessment that identified a lack of agency-wide strategic workforce planning as a high-risk area under the agency’s current operating model. It stated that the lack of agency-wide strategic workforce planning was at the root of many of the other findings in the assessment, such as the need for better coordination and collaboration across the centers, created uncertainty and was driving centers to think locally instead of agency-wide. To address this concern, the Office of Human Capital Management has an effort underway to begin to develop NASA’s first agency-level strategic workforce plan in 2018. NASA defines strategic workforce planning as the discipline of determining the size and composition of a future workforce that is able to perform the organization’s most important functions, maintain capabilities, and fulfill key business goals while maintaining agility in a dynamic environment. Human capital officials said they plan to update NASA’s policy on strategic workforce planning after they have established their framework for strategic workforce planning. As part of the new process, human capital officials said their office will provide guidance to the centers to develop center master plans, which are to have a 10- to 15-year outlook on capabilities. Human capital officials said they will ask the centers to develop their first master plans by October 2018, and the Office of Human Capital Management is to use them to create NASA’s first agency-level strategic workforce plan.

Cross-Center Collaboration: The 2016 human capital assessment also identified the need to increase cross-center collaboration to improve workforce utilization. NASA plans to develop a process to better understand where skills are needed across the centers and then use employees with those skills at any center to meet those needs. According to human capital officials, the Office of Human Capital Management was not the right organization to address this concern because they felt that it would require leadership at a higher level than their office to implement it. They noted that an effort such as this would require the agency to overcome the cultural barrier of NASA being a decentralized agency, with most of its work completed at the center level. This barrier has proven difficult for the agency in the past and has resulted in NASA having different approaches to implementing policies and guidance at the
centers. For example, in April 2014, we found that when NASA policy gave centers wide latitude in implementing export control procedures, implementation across centers was inconsistent.

NASA has taken other steps to improve cross-center collaboration by sharing mission support capabilities across the centers. For example, NASA plans to coordinate the center-level human capital and financial staff and activities through the headquarters offices, rather than at each center. NASA plans to complete this transition by the end of September 2019. Other business services areas, such as procurement, also plan to move to this operational model, but have not yet started the transition. Officials within the Office of the Chief Financial Officer said the purpose of this change is for the mission support areas to become more effective and efficient, and deliver a consistent set of services across the agency.

As NASA develops its first strategic workforce plan and considers taking additional steps towards a new operating model with more cross-center collaboration, it will be vital to have senior leadership’s commitment to these efforts. Capacity—having the right people and resources to resolve risk—is one of two criteria that NASA has not yet met for removal from our high-risk list; the other being demonstrating progress. We first designated acquisition management at NASA as a high-risk area in 1990 in view of NASA’s history of persistent cost growth and schedule slippage in the majority of its major systems. Capacity is central to managing the complex and difficult work that NASA takes on. We have found that an effective organization includes a senior leadership team committed to developing more effective ways of doing business, accomplishing results, and investing in human capital.

  • Lee

    Just what NASA needs. Not more engineers, but more “cost and pricing analysts.”

    Also, when you change the name of your Personnel department (which name implies you are dealing with actual *people*) to “Human Resources” (you’re not a person anymore, you’re just a “human resource”) and now apparently to “Human Capital Management” (you’re not even a human resource anymore, you’re now just “human capital” to be managed), you’ve got pretty serious problems.

  • windbourne

    MBAs at work.
    They are the ones that have been destroying American businesses.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    With all these people retiring who pays their pension?
    Is it NASA or some general civil service fund? Because if it is NASA then major programs will have to be cut to cover the cost.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The other issue is with HR in general. Most people that work in HR aren’t qualified to evaluate applications and resumes further than doing some background checks. In the “olden days”, department managers used to review applications and could spot probable talent that didn’t necessarily tick precisely defined check boxes.

    I see all sorts of stupid requirements on job postings. If I’m going to be designing flight hardware, why do I have to be an expert in Power Point? Why would I even want to use Outlook?. Also, HR doesn’t know that if I am well versed in Altium, I can get up to speed on any other eCAD system in a short period of time (unless it still runs under DOS). The same goes for any CAD application. They don’t know that CATIA and Solidworks are from the same company and substantially similar. An engineering manager would know all of that.

    NASA also needs to be able to hire good applicants right away. There is no sense in advertising a job, sorting through a stack of applications and interviewing selected people if it’s going to take another several months to award the position to somebody. By that time, they will likely have taken another position somewhere if they are good enough for the job.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    It does seem like the first step in getting an MBA is a lobotomy.