- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

NASA's top official yesterday pressed Congress for changes to the agency's hiring practices to avoid a potential labor shortage as thousands of scientists and engineers at the space agency near retirement.
Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space administration, said the agency needs more flexibility to hire new employees and retain those who are eligible for retirement or lured by more lucrative private-sector jobs.
"We do have time, but not much," Mr. O'Keefe told the Senate Governmental Affairs oversight subcommittee on government management and the federal work force.
The number of scientists and engineers at NASA age 60 and older outnumbers those 30 and younger by a 3-1 ratio.
About 15 percent of those workers are eligible for retirement now, and nearly 25 percent will be eligible within five years. The average age of all NASA workers is 46.3 years.
Mr. O'Keefe, 47, said the problem is largely a result of the agency's failure to recruit workers during the 1990s.
NASA has sought changes to hiring policies for more than a year. Mr. O'Keefe says he has a window of opportunity now that Congress has focused its attention on NASA in the wake of the Feb. 1 disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
"I'm delighted to see movement on something that we've been waving our arms about," he told reporters after testifying. "Certainly the issue wasn't dormant, but it was not getting the attention it deserved."
Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican and chairman of the oversight subcommittee, said he wants to put NASA's request on a "fast track."
"We do know we have a human capital problem. I think your situation commands a high priority," he told the NASA administrator.
Mr. O'Keefe said the space agency has a reputation to get scientists and engineers "to the door," but it lacks the flexibility to offer competitive benefits to persuade people with technical skills to work for the agency.
To help attract workers, NASA will push for legislation this year to:
Remove a cap that limits one-time bonuses for new and current employees to 25 percent of base pay.
Bolster annual leave for new employees who come to NASA from the private sector.
Introduce a program that offers college scholarships to math, science and engineering students. In return for scholarship money, students would fulfill a service requirement to NASA upon graduation.
Mr. O'Keefe said the changes should help the agency compete with the private sector for workers, but they won't be a panacea.
"Overall, can you do better in the private sector? I think the answer is indisputably yes," he said.
Some of NASA's requests were included in a bill introduced Wednesday by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee.
"The problem is [scientists and engineers] are leaving in droves. This is something that should raise a red flag in a number of corners," said Mr. Boehlert, the only other witness at the hearing.
Mr. Boehlert said he didn't believe NASA's difficulty finding talented workers contributed to the explosion of Columbia.
"I don't have a concern about that," he said.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement that the Columbia accident and NASA's looming work force crisis are "unquestionably connected."
"I am … concerned about heavy privatization of NASA's work force," he said. There are too few NASA employees charged with oversight of contract workers "to assure full implementation of safety processes."
Mr. O'Keefe disputed that NASA's reliance on contract workers contributed to the Columbia disaster. The United Space Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., launches shuttles.
At a public hearing in Houston called by the investigation board yesterday, Jefferson Davis Howell, director of the Johnson Space Center, said that only 3,000 of the 10,000 people at the space center are government workers. The rest work for aerospace contractors.
But Mr. Howell and space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore defended NASA's policy of shifting much of the work to contractors who maintain and launch the shuttle.
Safety has not been compromised and remains the main focus of the spaceflight program, both men said.
Henry McDonald, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said the agency must make fundamental changes in the way it evaluates safety so it can identify small problems.
That will require more than simply hiring additional inspectors, he said.
Fewer than 100 people attended the first in a series of public meetings at the Clear Lake campus of the University of Houston.

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