Lost in space: overcoming HR challenges at NASA

The government agency is facing a severe talent crisis, but a UK professor may possess the HR solutions that can save it.

In 2014, auto manufacturer Cadillac released a contentious television commercial where a famous American actor bragged about the country’s moon landing: “That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got?  Bored.  So we left.  Got a car up there and left the keys in it, and do you know why?  ‘Cause we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.”
While this line certainly makes for catchy marketing, is there any truth to the patriotic sentiment?
Perhaps not.  The agency is facing an imminent HR crisis, and potential setbacks include:
  • As of 2012, NASA accounts for only 6% of global expenditure on space-related research
  • A mere 0.5% of the US federal budget is allocated for NASA research, compared with 4.5% in the 1960s
  • At the time of the NASA moon landing, the average age in Mission Control was 26.  Gene Kranz, director of missions operations at the time, was 35 years old and described himself as “the old man in this room.”  As of 2007, however, the average age of a NASA engineer was 41
  • The number of workers in the 20-24 age range dropped from 34% in 1993 to 14% in 2013
In addition, the agency is limited by constraints placed on public American institutions.
“The organizational constraints placed on public sector organizations, for example, relating to the whole cycle of HR policies, mean that public sector organizations such as NASA do not have as much flexibility as the private sector on practices such as pay for performance, accelerated promotions, and configuring reward packages in ways that are competitive in the market for talent,” said Heracleous.
Heracleous has several suggestions for NASA moving forward, including:
  • Implement private market-oriented pay structures to attract brilliant scientists
  • Becoming more of a network organization that connects to other public and private sector agencies to work collaboratively and share resources
“In particular, collaboration with the private sector can take several forms beyond the principal/contractor relationship.  Learning from experiences with productive engagements within the private sector is one of the best ways to gradually build a culture and set of processes that facilitate such collaborations.”
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