Workforce Challenges at Ames Research Center – and Elsewhere at NASA

By Keith Cowing
January 9, 2005
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Workforce Challenges at Ames Research Center – and Elsewhere at NASA

NASA is once again facing budget pressures – pressures that are being translated into changes in its work force. This is not the first time that this has happened. In previous years, such pressures were either the result of overall attempts across the federal government to reduce the workforce, or due to cuts in NASA’s budget. This year, these changes come in the wake of an overall budget increase for the agency – one spurred on by a major new space policy issued by the White House.

While the agency did get a net budget increase for FY 2005, that increase can be deceiving. The ever mounting cost of returning the shuttle fleet to flight status and the inevitable propensity of Congress to stick pet projects into NASA’s portfolio all exact their toll on this budget increase.

With this budget comes change. NASA will be doing some new things, but it will also be reducing work in other areas. This means changes in the sorts of skills the agency needs in its workforce.

A large portion of NASA is currently conducting what has been called a “workforce reshaping” buyout. The intent is to adjust the workforce such that the so called “skill set” is better adjusted to the things the agency will need to be doing in order to implement the President’s Vision for Space Exploration announced a year ago. This is not an exercise to get rid of people as some have suggested.

The centers directly affected are Ames Research Center (ARC), Langley Research Center (LaRC), Glenn Research Center (GRC), and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).

The challenges being confronted at ARC are not unlike those being dealt with at GRC, LaRC, and MSFC – and other parts of the agency as well. When you compare the ARC’s FY 2004 budget with the FY 2005 budget, funding for science is up, but funding for aeronautics and some of the technology aspects of exploration systems are down significantly. In addition to these budget changes, the need for so called “in-house manufacturing and engineering” is forecast to be less with more things likely to be done via contractors.

In addition to these budget changes there is also the impact of Congressional earmarks (aka “pork”) i.e. projects that Congress decides to shove into NASA’s budget which have the effect of a dollar-for-dollar decrease in the funds NASA has to do the things already on its plate. Indeed, many of these Congressionally added items have nothing to do with space exploration at all.

ARC management, and that in other NASA field centers, saw this tough change coming and asked NASA headquarters for the authority to offer buyouts to civil servant employees. That buyout authority was approved in December 2004. At ARC, notices were sent out to the 500 or so people who were eligible for buyouts based on where they worked and the skills they had. A hoped-for target of 80 buyouts was set at that time. ARC held several all-hands meetings with its workforce in early December to describe the plan, the need for it, and the process whereby people could participate.

By 20 December 2004, according to NASA sources, it had become clear that ARC was far off from its hoped for goal of 80 people willing to take a buyout. In staff meetings with ARC managers on 20 December 2004 senior ARC management began to see that the ARC workforce did not seem to be taking the buyout program seriously. Many employees apparently believed that they could just hunker down and this crisis, like so many others in previous years, would eventually pass.

ARC still needed to achieve something close to the 80-buyout goal in order to avoid more dire consequences. Just after the holidays, senior ARC management began to hold a series of all-hands meetings to describe the situation. Their intent was to be open and honest about what could happen if ARC did not meet the target of a minimum of 80 buyouts by 20 January 2005.

On 7 January 2005, an all-hands meeting was held. ARC Center Director Scott Hubbard showed ARC’s workforce reshaping goals, the budgetary and programmatic drivers that served as the underpinnings of those goals, and the range of consequences that would likely result if ARC didn’t meet their planned objectives.

According to NASA sources, as presented by Hubbard at this meeting, the range of possibilities include a mixture of the following:

  • A “rolling furlough” – one which would be effective across all of ARC but would be structured so as to avoid a shutdown. The time of the furlough could be as little as a few days to as much as a week or more. The actual length of the furlough would depend on the final buyout numbers that were achieved.
  • A contractor employee layoff on top of those reductions already initiated to address previous budget reductions.
  • A reallocation of certain discretionary budgets such as training, awards, overtime etc..
  • Directed reassignments from the unfunded areas (due to changes from FY 2004 to FY 2005 budgets) to other places within ARC where there is work available for people to charge to. There is a possibility of reassignments for some people to other NASA field centers , such as was the case when airplanes were moved from ARC to DFRC in the late 1990s.
  • As a last resort, there is the possibility that there could be an increase made in overhead rates to accommodate the “unfunded capacity” in the “transition pool” i.e. to cover the salaries of some people for whom there is no work. ARC management reportedly sees stable overhead rates as being very critical to being competitive and sees such a move as being a last resort.

What final mix of these actions ARC management eventually takes will depend on the final buyout numbers as well as the skills of the people who actually take the buyout and those who remain.

Editor’s note: No one likes to lose his or her job. For the most part, no one likes to lay people off either. I quit my NASA civil service position in 1993 out of disgust and disillusionment with how Dan Goldin abused the agency’s workforce. Been there, done that.

These periods of buyouts can inevitably lead to morale dropping and productivity declining. Every time the work force goes through one of these episodes, they never quite bounce back. This is especially troublesome now that the agency has been challenged to retool itself for a new space initiative. If this process is not done carefully, those who remain at NASA will not be as poised to meet the new challenges that lie ahead as they could – and should be.

Alas, NASA’s track record in the past has often been less than humane when it comes to changes in the workforce. These changes are going to happen – but they don’t have to happen in a dispassionate, inconsiderate way. NASA management needs to tell their people what they know, when they know it – and needs to explain why things are being done. The truth does not get any better with age.

Some centers, such as ARC, are trying their best to keep out ahead of rumors and are openly discussing the options ahead. The management of other centers, such as LaRC, seems to be more interested in telling their people what they know – when they feel the time is right.

NASA’s greatest asset is its people, and this workforce adjustment process should ensure that this remains the agency’s top priority. But the NASA workforce also has to understand that change is inevitable and that some hard choices will need to be made. The NASA workforce needs to keep its management honest, but they also need to be realistic at the same time.

If NASA cannot adjust its people – as well as its infrastructure – so as to best meet the challenges that lie ahead, it will not achieve the tasks that have been set before it.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.