NASA’s Mission: Launching More Young Careers

By Jennifer Salopek

May. 20, 2011

For Garth Henning, it must have felt as if the planets were aligned at NASA. “When you saw somebody in the hall who was kind of close to your age, you’d stop and introduce yourself. This was very unusual behavior for introverted scientists and engineers,” recalls Henning, an engineer in the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., which oversees the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs. Henning, who is 36, says there were so few employees under the age of 40 that younger workers almost instantly gravitated toward each other.

Most workplaces aren’t nearly as “monogenerational” as NASA, which employs 18,000 people. Because of a big recruitment surge in the mid-1980s, followed by a hiring freeze lasting through most of the 1990s, the average employee age at NASA exceeded 47 by 2007 and less than 20 percent of the federal agency’s workers were under 40. Aside from limited social interaction with other young employees, Henning says, “We had difficulty seeing any promotion potential for ourselves.”

Clearly, NASA needed to prepare for its future by trying to recruit more people from both Generation X and the millennial generation and create an appealing workplace for younger employees. Like many employers, NASA also had to develop programs to integrate younger workers with the older baby boomer and traditionalist generations. Indeed, it was Gen Xers like Henning who got the ball rolling. Younger workers found one another and began organizing. They tackled social stuff first. “Most people wanted to know more about softball teams than retirement planning,” Henning says. Grass-roots groups gradually sprang up in more centers, and people with contacts at multiple centers began stitching together an agencywide group known as “Next Geners.”

Toni Dawsey, NASA’s former assistant administrator for human capital management, brought some Next Geners to a Strategic Management Council meeting in 2008. The workers identified significant concerns, including the need to gain leadership training and experience, a perceived lack of advancement potential and limited communication and collaboration across generations. Impressed by the feedback, then-administrator Mike Griffin charged center administrators with setting up cross-generational meetings to address the Next Gen concerns.

Dawsey, who retired from NASA in 2010, was put in charge of implementing changes agencywide. One of her first acts was to dust off NASA FIRST, a leadership development program for early-career professionals that had languished on a shelf for two years. FIRST, which stands for Foundations of Influence, Relationships, Success & Teamwork, targets GS-11 and GS-12 employees—on the federal government’s 15-grade General Schedule wage system—who are usually in their 20s. “Professional development is a huge part of the NASA culture, but the Next Geners had identified a gaping hole,” says Erica Bovaird, FIRST’s program manager.

The competitive program guides 40 high-potential participants, who are selected by judges, through a yearlong leadership development curriculum. Participants work in small groups on projects, and the teams are each assigned a sponsor, adviser and mentors. Many individual centers have created their own mentoring programs and social groups. For example, a Developing Professionals Club at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland focuses on career growth, community service and networking. Its members interact with senior management at various events.

Another priority identified by Next Geners was a desire for formal employee orientation. In response, Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California, formed a multigenerational group called OpenAmes that eventually spread to the agency level. “Our onboarding programs are now very advanced and multigenerationally friendly,” Dawsey says. Each new employee is paired with an experienced sponsor who serves as a guide.

New technology often provides opportunities for collaboration across generations. At Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Next Geners assisted with the redesign of the intranet and launched Spacebook, a NASA version of Facebook, to help workers connect. Spacebook proved so popular that it was soon adopted agencywide. Despite such efforts, the percentage of NASA workers under the age of 40 stubbornly remains below 20 percent. But the space agency remains hopeful that its programs for the younger generations will ultimately produce a galaxy of new stars.

Workforce Management, May 2011, p. 16Subscribe Now!

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