- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

A potential wave of retirements at NASA and the agency's difficulty attracting young engineers is threatening its ability to fulfill its scientific mission.
The number of scientists and engineers at the agency 60 years and older outnumbers those 30 years and younger by a 3-1 ratio. About 15 percent of the science and engineering work force at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is eligible to retire now, and within five years nearly a quarter of them will be eligible.
"A brain drain makes it more difficult for NASA to complete any of a whole range of activities they are engaged in. You can have the fancy buildings and the fancy machines, but there is nothing more important than human capital," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee. He is scheduled to testify today on NASA's aging work force before the Senate Governmental Affairs oversight of government management, federal work force and the District of Columbia subcommittee.
The average age of NASA's 20,000 employees is 46.3 years, up from 43.4 years in 1993, according to the Office of Personnel Management.
NASA's trouble recruiting college graduates may be as a result of the perception that NASA no longer is on the cutting edge of space research, said Bruce Mahone, director of space policy at the Aerospace Industries Association.
"They're not doing a huge number of shuttle flights a year. They're not going beyond low-Earth orbit. I think a lot of [the shortage of young workers] has to do with the program. It is a good shuttle program, but we aren't moving forward," he said.
In addition, the shuttle program is a money pit that makes investment in other research difficult, said Howard McCurdy, an American University professor of public affairs who studies NASA's history and culture.
"We weren't supposed to become transfixed with developing the shuttle program for 30 years. NASA should have moved on," he said.
The space agency will spend an estimated $6.1 billion to fund the shuttle program, the International Space Station and spaceflights in fiscal 2003, according to agency documents. That's nearly 41 percent of its estimated $15 billion budget.
NASA remains steadfast in its belief that, while there is a labor shortage in the making, the agency will avoid a crisis.
"Even though we do have a large number of people who can retire, I don't think they will," NASA Deputy Administrator Frederick Gregory said.
NASA is pressing for a series of small changes to attract more workers and pre-empt a labor shortage.
One proposal includes making more new employees eligible for relocation allowances. Under current policy, NASA can give the allowance only to government workers who transfer to the space agency, not new employees who come from the private sector.
NASA also wants to change the formula used to calculate the annual leave for some new employees. New employees accrue annual leave at the rate of four hours for every two-week pay period, which is the minimum. The agency says it can attract experienced workers if the policy is changed so people with 20 years' experience in the private sector, for instance, accrue annual leave at the maximum rate of eight hours every two weeks.
Both proposals are included in a bill introduced in January by Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee holding today's hearing.
Mr. Boehlert introduced a separate bill yesterday giving NASA authority to offer more incentives to retain and recruit workers.
NASA is not the only organization affected by an aging engineering work force. The Aerospace Industries Association released a study this week that concludes the number of industry workers has fallen to its lowest levels since 1953 because of industry mergers and acquisitions and because of lower revenue among air carriers. An estimated 689,000 people worked in the industry at the end of 2002, down 106,000 since September 11, 2001.
"We know the work force is aging, and we've got to do something about it," said John W. Douglass, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

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