NASA Struggles with Shortage of Skilled Workers

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is already hampered by a shortfall of skilled workers, a problem that will be exacerbated as the space agency gears up to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 in the Artemis program.

That is the conclusion of a new report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The review identified attracting and retaining a highly-skilled workforce as one of the space agency’s seven biggest management and performance challenges. [Full Report]

“NASA faces significant workforce challenges that can hinder its ability to deliver projects in a cost effective and timely manner,” the report stated. “The OIG and GAO [Government Accountability Office] have reported on multiple NASA projects—Mars 2020, Europa Clipper, Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment, and EGS [Exploration Ground Systems]—that have experienced workforce challenges, including not having enough staff or staff with the right skills.”

The OIG review found that NASA faces three workforce challenges: a nationwide shortage of workers skilled in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines; competition from other government agencies, the private sector and academia; and a potential pending wave of retirements.

NASA’s civil servant headcount totals around 17,000, with about 65 percent of them — roughly 11,050 — skilled in science and engineering (S&E) disciplines.

Within S&E, roughly half of the employees are over 50 years old. More concerning is that 28 percent of the total S&E employees, or roughly 3,000, are currently eligible to retire, with an additional 2,000 employees becoming eligible to retire within the next 5 years.

NASA’s current human resources modeling predicts only a small reduction in the Agency’s S&E workforce given that many NASA employees continue to work well past their retirement eligibility date. However, before a large wave of retirements occur, it is imperative that NASA hire and begin developing the next generation of employees with the skills to manage its highly technical and largely contractor-driven space, science, and aeronautics projects.

The OIG found the space agency has taken a number of steps to deal with its workforce challenges. NASA began a broad look at its operating model in 2012. Individual field centers are responsible for monitoring their workforce needs, while technical discipline teams conduct strategic assessments across the centers and reach outside the agency.

NASA created a Technical Capabilities and Assessment Team initiative that has evaluated the space agency’s technical capabilities and workforce skills, and made recommendations for “investing in, consolidating, or eliminating duplicative capabilities based on current and future mission requirements.”

Key IG Recommendations Implemented by NASA
The JPL Director should evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements and make adjustments as necessary.

The Associate Administrator should create standardized guidance for performing annual capability assessments that considers, at a minimum, the appropriate time and resources for performing the assessments and the required data, analyses, and expected goals or results.

The report also noted NASA’s STEM outreach and education efforts, which include internships, minority engagement, the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), and other programs.

“These partnerships have provided regular educational opportunities for students in STEM disciplines,” the document stated. “In FY 2018, NASA launched 21 CSLI CubeSats. Additionally, the Agency’s Robotics Alliance Project (RAP) hopes to inspire youth in STEM fields through activities and competitions in robotics.

“In FY 2018, RAP sponsored 270 FIRST Robotics Competition teams (involving approximately 7,000 students), sponsored 50 VEX robotics teams (approximately 500 students), and sponsored or supported 18 FIRST Robotics Competition events (approximately 48,000 students),” the report added.

Despite these efforts, the OIG said NASA needs to do more to fill its current gaps as it ramps up the Artemis program. The report noted the space agency last created a workforce master plan in 2007.

Key IG Recommendations Not Implemented by NASA
Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate to evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements by project over the next 5 years.

The JPL Director to evaluate current and future critical technical staffing requirements, make staffing adjustments to the Europa Clipper project as necessary, and reassess Lander commitments.

“Currently, NASA is in the first year of formulating a 5-year workforce master plan. As part of the plan, the Centers are identifying their requirements to hire and train a workforce to meet projected demands,” the report stated.

“While this is a positive first step, ideally workforce master plans look 10, even 20 years into the future to identify critical skills and articulate a strategy for addressing anticipated workforce needs,” the document added.

In his response to the report, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the space agency is working on several steps to address its workforce needs.

“NASA is working with OPM [Office of Personnel Management] to identify and implement as many hiring flexibilites as possible to allow the Agency to hire, retain, and reward the personnel necessary to ensure Artemis’ success,” he wrote.

Bridenstine said efforts to develop a new workforce master plan are moving forward. The space agency plans to update the document on an annual basis to continually refine its workforce needs, he added.

The Science Mission Directorate “is in the process of evaluating staffing procedures and requirements and anticipates to provide a detailed analysis in early 2020,” Bridenstine wrote.

Ongoing and Anticipated Future Audit Work

We will continue to monitor progress on the Agency’s 5-year workforce master plan and may initiate an audit to assess NASA’s workforce challenges. We will also continue to examine specific workforce issues as part of broader audits and reviews. For example:

Management of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Airborne Observatory
The overall objective is to assess NASA’s management of the SOFIA airborne observatory during its ongoing prime operations phase relative to cost, technical performance, and scientific achievements.

Management of the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator Project
The overall objective is to assess whether NASA is managing the Demonstrator project to accomplish its technical objectives while meeting established milestones and controlling costs.

Management of NASA’s Planetary Science Portfolio
The overall objective is to assess NASA’s management of its planetary science portfolio and examine whether it is achieving established goals and priorities.

Audit of Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
This audit is examining NASA’s management of the Orion Program and its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corporation, and the extent to which NASA is meeting cost, schedule, performance, and affordability goals for the Artemis program.