The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Sherwood Boehlert
Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (above) has introduced legislation to help NASA solve what some perceive to be serious problems the agency has hiring and retaining scientists and engineers. (credit: J. Foust)

Is NASA’s brain drain a myth?

“One of the greatest problems NASA faces is a huge retirement bulge. Within five years, a quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible to retire.”
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, chairman, House Science Committee, March 6, 2003

For years NASA and its friends in Congress and elsewhere have been beating the drums about problems with the agency’s workforce. Indeed, it’s accepted as a given now that the agency’s technical staff is getting old. If one believes the dire predictions of some, a torrent of workers will soon escape from their cubicles for retirement homes in Florida and Arizona, depriving the agency of its best and brightest at its most critical time.

These predictions of doom-and-gloom are not new. For the last several years the independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) has warned NASA about workforce issues in its annual report. “The extended hiring freeze has resulted in an older workforce that will inevitably suffer significant departures from retirements in the near future,” ASAP warned in its 1998 report. “The resulting ‘brain drain’ could represent a future safety risk unless appropriate succession planning is started expeditiously.”

ASAP, NASA’s independent safety panel, has repeatedly warned that a “brain drain” from retirements could threaten shuttle safety.

NASA and others continue to beat the drum of impending retirements today, as Boehlert’s quote above illustrates. They also express concerns at the opposite end of the workforce spectrum, regarding the number of young employees at NASA. Part of the perceived problem is a lack of graduates in aerospace engineering and other fields. “The reinforcement pipeline is shrinking, producing fewer science and engineering graduates interested in aerospace careers,” ASAP noted in its 2002 report. Once NASA hires them, it seems to have a problem retaining them: Sean O’Keefe said in Congressional testimony last year that outside the age 55 and over retirement age group, NASA lost the most scientists and engineers among those aged 25-39.

Put together, these all appear to paint a dire picture at NASA. Because of these problems, Boehlert introduced legislation in Congress in March that would try to address the problem. HR 1085, the “NASA Flexibility Act of 2003”. The bill would allow NASA to pay bonuses to recruit and retain workers; those bonuses could be worth up to 50 percent of the employee’s salary. The bill would also allow NASA to create up to 10 special job positions “addressing a critical need” at the agency. People that NASA hires to fill those positions could be paid up to $198,600 a year, the same amount the Vice President makes.

“Now, NASA is not the only agency facing workforce issues, in general, or issues involving its scientific and engineering workforce in particular,” Boehlert told the Senate in March. “But NASA’s needs are especially critical. I don’t believe we have to wait for massive, wholesale reform of civil service law to take care of NASA’s immediate problems.”

Where’s the problem?

Taken at face value, it looks like HR 1085 is just what NASA needs to solve its human capital problems. The question, though, is this: is there really that dire a problem with the workforce? If you look closely, you might think twice about the problem and the solution.

The first issue is the impending wave of retirements. Both Boehlert and ASAP have noted that 25 percent of NASA’s workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. The key word, though, is eligible. Not all employees who are eligible to retire will do so. Indeed, according to an article on, NASA is projecting retirement rates of only 2 to 2.7 percent a year from now through 2008, essentially the same rate the agency experienced in the previous five years. The article adds that for scientists and engineers, the retirement rate is even lower, averaging about 2 percent a year through 2008. That rate is about the same as the federal government as a whole.

It turns out, upon review of the statistics of other federal agencies, that NASA is not alone. Many other federal agencies also found that while large percentages of its workforce would be eligible to retire, a much smaller fraction would actually do so. The article points out the Defense Logisitics Agency as one extreme example: half of its employees will be eligible to retire in five years, according to statistics the agency collected in 2000, but the actual retirement rate is a manageable four percent a year.

NASA’s retirement rate is only about two percent a year, the same as the federal government average and a level experts believe is manageable.

Even if retirement isn’t a major issue, one can argue, there is still the problem of retaining younger employees. The issue here is that it’s not clear that, even if there is a problem, it is something it can be solved with money. Space News noted in an article in its March 10, 2003 issue that NASA’s scientists and engineers are reasonably compensated. Nearly all of these technical employees make between $61,000 and $110,000 per year, which compares well to the average private-sector salary of $77,000 for aerospace engineers with graduate degrees. The article also notes that the median salary of federally-employed engineers is $74,160, compared to $68,000 in the private sector.

If this is the case, then it suggests that many of the provisions of Boehlert’s bill, notably bonuses to hire and retain engineers and scientists, are for naught. If these people really are leaving the agency, or not getting hired in the first place, it’s not generally because of low pay. If NASA does have a workforce problem, HR 1085 doesn’t offer a solution.

There are other skeptics about the legislation. “Many of the proposals contemplated in this legislation have been presented elsewhere as governmentwide changes or earlier in the form of legislation prepared by NASA’s political leadership, and have been rejected largely on the grounds that they undermine merit system principles, that they would exacerbate the federal government’s ‘human capital’ crisis, and that they would create serious conflicts of interests between private sector interests and the public good,” said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, during a House Science Committee hearing about the bill in March.

Perhaps, then, any problems NASA has attracting and keeping employees has a deeper root than simply the size of their paychecks. Look at it from the standpoint of young engineers hired by the agency, placed in relatively menial positions, mostly likely related to the space shuttle or space station. Hardly exciting stuff, doing grunt work on projects that started before you were even born. No wonder jobs outside the agency start to look appealing. (Nevermind past hiring freezes that denied even the most qualified, eager applicants any chance of working for NASA; fortunately those days are gone… for now.)

Perhaps, then, any problems NASA has attracting and keeping employees has a deeper root than simply the size of their paychecks.

If NASA wants to be an agency that has no problems recruiting and keeping the best and brightest, perhaps its time to start giving them projects that are exciting and interesting to work on. Give them projects on the cutting edge that can’t be done elsewhere and where failure, if not accepted, is realized to be part of the learning process. To borrow a phrase from NASA’s mission statement, NASA needs its employees to not only do things “as only NASA can,” but to do things that only NASA can.

If NASA found a way to reorganize its programs in such a way to give exciting work to its technical staff, particularly its young employees, many of its workforce problems might simply disappear. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to slap a Band-Aid on the problem, even an ill-fitting one like HR 1085, than do the hard work needed to get to the root of those concerns. Until that happens, NASA’s workforce problems, or at least the perception that those problems exist, will continue for years to come.