Monday, February 25, 2008

Aerospace Workforce Issues

In September 2007 Claudia Morrell, Executive Director of the Center for Women and Information Technology of the University of Maryland Baltimore County gave a talk to the committee leading the Aerospace Initiative of the Governor's Workforce Investment Board in the State of Maryland. During her talk she emphasized three reasons why young women were not pursuing careers in technology:

  • They disliked the work-life balance common in technology fields.
  • They thought the work was boring.
  • They were familiar with managers in their 30s and 40s who were extraordinarily poor leaders who not only did harm to their groups but also to the careers and lives of young people coming into their fields.

She noted that when these issues were successfully addressed, that young women – as well as young men – were far more likely to choose work in technology.

These findings echo what I have heard in other forums as well. In July at a NewSpace meeting organized by Space Frontier Foundation Loretta Whitesides commented how the generation born after Apollo did not share the memories of older people involved in aerospace. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin might vividly remember John Glenn's orbital flight. Some one born after the last Apollo mission in 1972 will remember the Challenger tragedy instead. She also commented that they were looking for leadership that listened and was open to new ideas. The fact that NASA does not have that reputation any more is a major criticism.

Mary Lynne Dittmar has done extensive research in how the public thinks about NASA. She has delivered papers at conferences such as Space 2006, organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and written articles such as Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value (Part 1) and Part 2. In her work she has expressed the view that NASA needs to start listening to people and develop a bottom up as well as a top down method of generating value. Dittmar has noted that younger people are not much interested in sending humans to Mars – one goal of the current Vision for Space Exploration. She does note, though, that young people are much more interested and supportive of things like space tourism – which offers the possibility of real participation – and probes to places such as Mars – which again offers some possibility of participation, if only vicariously.

We also have the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Among other things, they described NASA as an organization that failed to listen to issues raised by staff more familiar with matters at hand than managers above them. They also described NASA as not a learning organization. This should be viewed as damning criticism of a research and development organization.

We thus see some common threads developing with regard to the aerospace industry. There is a lack of listening, a lack of willingness to try ideas that are developed outside an insiders' club (the “Not Invented Here” syndrome) and problems learning things outside relatively narrow specialties. While this leads to high profile failures in the case of NASA, one can see similar things throughout technological fields. There is also the notion that the culture of aerospace – and indeed much of technological work – needs reform. One interesting observation is made by tech workers in all sorts of fields. We claim that the comic strip Dilbert by Scott Adams is not a comic strip, but a documentary. Adams himself is a former IT professional. Tech workers supply him with many ideas.

There are, however, good examples we can learn from. The SAS Institute has an excellent reputation for the quality of its products as well as the way it treats its employees and the way it operates in the larger community. SAS seems like one company that has learned that “It Takes a Village” to not only bring up healthy citizens but to do all sorts of things – including run a successful business that makes significant contributions to the larger society for over thirty years. In the past few years NASA Ames, under Pete Worden, also seems like a place that is open to the outside and new ideas. They are also doing some pretty interesting things technically. There are also other examples of quality leadership in aerospace. Friends who have worked for Nobel Prize Winner John Mather at Goddard Space Flight Center say all sorts of good things about the man. He is described as a man who listens, who gives credit to others and is, to quote one man, “a real Boy Scout.”

In this short paper I have begun to describe workforce problems in aerospace and, indeed, in much of technological work. What are some solutions that a Clinton administration could pursue to help address these very real problems?

One idea could be fairly simple to implement. There is an office of the ombudsman. It seems to me – someone who worked at Goddard Space Flight Center for 9 years – that this office is fairly low profile. Raising the profile – and extending its mission to include contractors seems to me to be a good idea. Allowing anyone – regardless of employment status – to anonymously bring issues to the attention of this office, especially management issues, would help address problems that I have identified. There are some dirty little secrets that need addressing. People – especially contractor employees – have quit because of “lies and abuse.” Some groups withhold the granting of civil servant status to more independent employees.

A second idea is to begin sending employees – both civil servant and contractor – off for training in people knowledge. At Space 2006 I met a woman involved with an aerospace MBA program at the University of Tennessee. Since she was one of the few people I have ever met with a background in both the “hard” and social sciences, I asked her why so many MBAs had such poor knowledge of how humans behaved. She replied that, while an MBA student could get a solid knowledge of such things, too many avoided such areas. This needs to be changed. When NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who holds, among other things an MBA degree, can get up in public and, while discussing the Columbia report, say that he doesn't understand cultural issues because of a lack of knowledge of human psychology, that is an admission of inadequacy that needs rectifying.

A third idea is to bring such training to all employees in aerospace. This would mean not just an occasional lecture at a NASA center or contractor facility but serious education programs along the lines that, for example, engineers receive as part of their careers.

A fourth idea is to identify those employees who have already gained experience in some field outside their technical specialty. While at Goddard I participated as a photographer and occasional actor in Goddard's Music and Drama Club. Members of this club – who put on major shows more than once a year – had social skills and knowledge significantly superior to most employees. There are many other ways of identifying employees with broader knowledge.

NASA in this way could become a model for society to emulate. Many scientists decry the lack of knowledge of science by our political leaders. Much less often some scientists observe that scientists lack knowledge of the political sector – and, indeed, almost anything outside their narrow specialty. This needs to change.

This brief paper is meant to spark discussion about an important but not high profile challenge facing our society. I think the challenge can be met with thoughtful, open minded leadership.