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Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce

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Location: Washington, DC

Senate Government Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Holds Hearing on Evaluating Human Capital at NASA

PRYOR:

    Thank you. I'd be glad to.

    If I may, I just have three or four questions, Mr. Chairman, on the retention of employees. The first question I have is just a general question. Are you losing employees to retirement? Or are you losing them to the private sector?

O'KEEFE:

    Predominantly, it's retirement. There is, in the aerospace industry overall, there is not a vigorous recruiting and hiring activity underway. But it's primarily for retirements. But NASA is a bit unique in the sense that there is a fair amount of movement at mid levels as well towards private sector opportunities.

    But in this particular period, given the current state of the aerospace industry over the last couple of years, three years, it has been a less than vigorous recruiting period. But it has, throughout its history, there has been a fair amount of movement at mid levels from NASA directly to private industry. But it's primarily, at this juncture, retirement related.

PRYOR:

    And with regard to the private sector, I assume the competing interests for most of these highly qualified people that work for NASA would be mostly the aerospace industry?

O'KEEFE:

    Not necessarily. It is, in certain aspects of what we're dealing with, certainly in the flight operations activities for International Space Station, for the space shuttle program, for some of the test flight centers that we operate, the aerospace industry is a dominant employer.

    But on the space science functions and Earth science functions, for example, it's a wide range of folks with backgrounds in astronomy, geology, you name it. There are any number of different disciplines in the scientific and engineering-related fields that aren't necessarily directly applicable to aerospace industry direct.

PRYOR:

    And are salaries competitive? Is that one of the problems, that people get to sort of a plateau in the salary?

O'KEEFE:

    We're really going to do more exhaustive analyses because this is a real spirited debate that goes on constantly. The most recent data I saw from an outfit called the Partnership for Public Service -- quoting and using some Bureau of Labor statistics data -- suggests that it is competitive and that what we're dealing with, on average, is a -- for engineers, principally -- is pretty competitive with private industry.

    Now it is capped, to be sure. And so you won't find the high-end aberrations. And I think part of it is skewed by the fact that, again, NASA is the number two employer of engineers in terms of federal employment across the government.

    And part of it, I think, may be a function of an aging and more mature workforce of engineers than what we see in the private sector. Because there are fewer folks, by a long shot, with range and experience that ranges from 10 to, say, 15 years because there was a real recruiting lag that occurred throughout the '90s. And as a result of that, you see a more high-end average because the folks who are still part of the workforce are in that area.

    But it appears to be competitive. But it bears a lot more examination to really analyze that carefully.

PRYOR:

    Yeah. You know, I just came out of an environment where I was the attorney general of my state before I came here. And we were always competing with the private sector for lawyers, you know? And under . . .

O'KEEFE:

    Very difficult task.

VOINOVICH:

    It's a very difficult task.

PRYOR:

    And under our state system, you know, we were very limited on what we could pay. And I mean literally, we had a situation where a lot of best and bright-type lawyers could come out of law school and, within two or three years, they could easily make as much as some of our most highly paid lawyers.

    And you know, at that point, you've got to rely on trying to find dedicated people that are committed to public service. And there's a lot more than just money for a lot of people.

    And we were fortunate to have a very, very quality staff there. But it was a struggle to try to keep all the pieces together.

    But it sounds like NASA, that may not really be the primary issue, but maybe one of many issues. Is that fair to say?

O'KEEFE:

    Yes, sir. I think that's a fair assessment. The opportunities we have and what we have at our disposal, I think, that is really quite unique is I think what appears to be a pretty competitive salary range in terms of entry level; to be sure at mid- level.

    The other major advantage and I think we have an opportunity -- and it's kind of an irony in the sense that this liability is now a virtue in this sense -- that when you look at the range of experience and repaucity (ph) of folks within that five to 15 range of experience, it means to folks that there are great promotion opportunities if you come in. So there are a smaller cohort of folks competing for a larger number of opportunities. And so advancement is a very, very attractive kind of circumstance right now for not only folks coming in, but also as an inducement for those who might want to look at a mid-level entry, having spent five or 10 years in an engineering firm and coming to the federal government with that approach.

    Much of what we have proposed in the Workforce Management Enhancement Act that the president sent up last June is designed specifically to provide some real incentives to sign up now -- recruiting bonuses, opportunities for travel coverage -- all those kinds of things, inducements that any company would normally provide, to a much lesser extent, but at least it's there. And it's not like, gee, we're just appealing to your sense of public service to come aboard. There at least are some competitive advantages.

    Overall, can you do better in the private sector? I think unanswerably or indisputably, the answer is yes. You can do a lot better there.

    But in terms of entry-level opportunities and potentially mid- level entry from other experience, it is a very attractive time to be part of an exciting program like NASA has to offer.

PRYOR:

    Mr. Chairman, the last question I have is, you know, when I think of NASA, I think of obviously you have some employment opportunities in the Washington, D.C. area. And then you have some in Florida and some in Texas.

    Are there other regions of the country where NASA has major facilities?

O'KEEFE:

    Yes, sir. As a matter of fact, the smallest number are here in Washington. The rest are in Texas, Florida, California, Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland -- just up the road here at Goddard -- and Ohio, of course.

    (LAUGHTER)

PRYOR:

    You left one state out there, though. Arkansas.

O'KEEFE:

    Oh, no, no. Had to save the absolute punch line for the end there. But it is really -- and throughout Virginia, certainly at the Langley Research Center as well.

    But it's a very expanded effort. If you can trace the history of NASA's development from the early NACA days when the Wright Brothers and others all formed together as part of the original Langley efforts to bring about aeronautics as a focus of the federal establishment and then trace it throughout the history of development of NASA in 1958, it has grown up in lots of different locations around the country. And some places are easier to recruit than others, to be sure.

PRYOR:

    I understand that. Okay. That's all I have, Mr. Chairman. Thank you.

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