Learning and Developing for a Lifetime

At the intersection of mission, people, and place is NASA’s need to develop and grow all talent at any stage. Rising life expectancies and an aging global workforce present organizations with unprecedented challenges and untapped opportunities. Developing ways for people to have meaningful, productive, multi-stage, and multidimensional careers creates new connection points to engage workers at any stage in life. Such career models geared toward continuous learning, development and growth are mutually beneficial for employees and organizations when aligned to the organizational capabilities necessary to accomplish the work.


The workforce of today and tomorrow desires to continually develop and constantly learn. Research consistently highlights that while generational differences are important, the stage in career is just as important, if not more so, when considering how to handle the learning and development needs of individuals and organizations (The Conference Board and Deloitte, 2016). The Future of Work reveals that the stage in career and stage in life are becoming intertwined. No longer do we routinely witness incremental choices where graduate degrees follow families or professional careers are put on hold to pursue long-standing dreams. Instead doors are opening naturally, and more of them, to achieve life and career pursuits simultaneously. Our primary research highlighted that constant learning is both a want and a need coupled with an expectation that learning would result more from self-teaching or on-the-job experiences than from formal instruction.

Learning over a lifetime is also taking on new meaning. We are living longer and retiring later (if at all). Approximately 74 percent of Americans plan to work past a retirement age of 65, conveying interest in continuing to contribute and remain engaged (Dye, 2017). Recognized as the longevity revolution, increasing life expectancies have tremendous impacts on and implications for organizations. Companies must account for new models of learning, development, and engagement that foster environments and build communities that care and feed increasingly diverse workforces. In turn, organizations must rethink the concept of value and performance to align pay and compensation for radically changed value creation from the new normal of lifelong careers.


Aforementioned trends and generated insights weigh heavily on forward-planning for NASA across the board. From development and performance perspectives, NASA offers fragmented development opportunities that are often location-based or discipline-centric and not equally accessible across the workforce. Leadership courses reach relatively small numbers of programmatically selected candidates. Prioritizing development is often challenged by the absence of a requirement for civil servants, which leads agencies to allocate diminishing funds elsewhere. From a performance angle, annual reviews serve as the foundation for tenure-based step pay increases with commensurate pay based on predefined compensation scales and feedback with no formal linkage to skills growth, development, potential, or promotion. Leadership and strong relationships weigh heavily on the quantity and quality of both development opportunities and performance assessment because systems and processes are set up for uniformity and do not facilitate alternate paths.

Shaping and succession are areas of increasing priority. NASA’s workforce is aging and suffers from talent lock-in where 56 percent of the workforce is 50 years old or older (compared to 49% in 2012). In comparison, the median age of SpaceX’s 6,000 employees is 31 (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2018). At the onset of 2018, 21 percent of the workforce was retirement-eligible with another 23 percent of employees eligible in less than 5 years. Whether employees stay past retirement-eligibility varies by occupation, but individuals typically remain 4 to 7 years past their initial eligibility date and staff in engineering and science occupations tend to stay on longer. NASA currently holds no mandatory retirement age and remains bound by the rights of civil servants to their positions. Overall attrition hovers at 4 percent, leaving little room for meaningful flexibility in the workforce composition or skills refresh. While NASA’s sizeable aging workforce provides a way to retain institutional knowledge as experienced staff stay longer, it also results in higher acceptance of the “status quo” and limits the Agency’s ability to shape the workforce supply to satisfy new skills, approaches, and ideas serving our dynamic mission demand.


Learning and longevity demands a reimagined talent development strategy that engages and rewards continuous learning accessible to all employees (of all ages and career stages). This strategy must exploit the notion of growth-based careers, effectively valuing the learning from growth through diverse experiences offered by talent exchanges and movement (rotations, term assignments, teams/task forces, and more). Compensation, promotion, and rewards must be clearly based on criteria aligned to skills attainment and enhancement, recognition of continued merit in one’s technical field, and desirability and selection for work by project teams, versus longevity or past performance history.

In tandem, NASA will need to refine the workforce shaping toolkit to include a mix of solutions beyond phased retirements: increased separation incentives, revised special pay authorities, pre-retirement programs, and the evolution of succession. Such solutions must also account for the refresh of skills. NASA must build in aforementioned methods to plan for and mobilize talent or will only perpetuate the current challenges. NASA must also work to build teaming approaches and partial-time matrixed opportunities that cross traditional boxes on charts and encourage cross-generational learning/knowledge transfer, as well as incentivize such behavior.

About the Authors

Nick Skytland | Nick has pioneered new ways of doing business in both government and industry for nearly two decades. He leads the Future of Work initiative at NASA and is the Agency Talent and Technology Strategist in the Talent Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).

The Future of The No-Collar Workforce

Since NASA’s inception, the Agency’s workforce might be characterized as full-time workers with fervent loyalty to the Agency. However, as the workforce transforms, NASA is redefining their talent pool to include freelancers, remote employees, and even robots.

NASA is at the forefront of embracing digital transformation to augment the modern-day workforce and redefine the expectations of the talent pool. Through automation, the NASA Shared Services Center has already begun to revolutionize what it means to be an employee by allowing four robots the ability to operate with mock Social Security numbers for credentialing purposes.

Unfortunately, neither of these robots are Robonaut or Valkyrie.

Source: https://usnewsghost.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/earths-shielding-effect-airborne-internet-nasa-space-robotics/

Each of these robots, although assigned different tasks, are designed with the highest degree of efficiency and potential reduced cost in mind. Through Intelligent Automation Services (IAS), the robots acquire consuming, mundane tasks such as spreadsheets, emails, and other organization tasks. This process is also known as Robotic Process Automation, or RPA.

“IAS is a software solution that mimics human interaction with computers, enabling organizations to automate existing user actions and have those actions performed by a digital employee. Intelligent automation introduces a new type of digital employee to the Agency’s workforce, one that shares many common characteristics with human employees. Digital employees, like human employees, will require user IT credentials, licenses, access roles, desktop computers or virtual machines, supervisors, and work instructions” (NSSC,2018).

NASA joined forces with UiPath to implement RPA capabilities. RPA allows new opportunities for their human counterpart to strengthen their skill set and focus on tasks that require more abstract thought.

“Both Deloitte Consulting and HFS Research have conducted separate studies to determine how many resources agencies would free up by using digital employees or robotic processes. Estimates range from $40 billion to $80 billion in terms of resources that could be reallocated to more value-added activities that improve citizen services. (Meritalk, 2018).

Rather than remove opportunity from those doing automatable skills, this new automation will open-up new opportunities as each wave of new technology has before it. Jobs are not being replaced but, rather, shifted to allow for more creativity, value, and collaboration among people as we continue to adapt to the lack of geographically defined work.

So what, or more accurately, who is the new talent at NASA? Through partnering with Deloitte, the first bot to perform RPA at NASA was born. This HR bot is better known as George Washington to its colleagues. According to a presentation by the National Contract Management Association, NASA and Deloitte created four of these robots.

  1. HR Bot: Automating the creation of new personal cases in Service Now for position transfers and new hires
  2. OCFO Bot: Automating the funds distribution process at the Agency level NSSC Business
  3. Accounting Bot: Automating the funds distribution process at the center level
  4. OCIO Bot: Automating the purchase requisition process for goods and services

This digital wave is opening the gates for a new realm of human-to-human collaboration, and human-to-bot. This begs the question that if we are now offering full positions to these bots, are they potentially allowed the same workplace rights as their human counterparts? How do we build our systems and processes to accommodate our new digital colleagues? As we adapt to this inevitable shift, companies must remain agile in their ability to conceptualize technology as “talent,” as it is now a crucial part of the makeup of their workforce.

Attracting top talent is imperative as NASA moves forward with eyes on a new generation of space dreamers and innovators. This needs to be broadened to encompass not only a human talent pool but may also mean conceptualizing and scouting out new technologies and ways to implement them within the workplace. Redefining talent comes to fruition where the desire to pursue the latest and greatest collides with mission and people. Resilience is being developed to account for shifting mission priorities as the industry accounts for new actors in the space economy.

For NASA, this means adapting to a new mindset around what constitutes a worker. Along the talent continuum, this may range from full-time to part-time workers. Moving forward, much like these newly implemented robots, technology will need to be considered in the hiring process. Other considerations include the gig economy and crowdsourcing efforts.

NASA is a leader in the revolution in redefining talent by paving a pathway for new technology, new questions, and a new world of opportunity. As we embrace the world of globalization, we welcome new talent and the new technology that comes along with it.

About the Authors

Jenna Kay Foertsch | Jenna is an intern at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center working in the Central Operations Directorate and is focused on data visualization and content strategy.  Jenna Kay attends the University of Minnesota and will graduate in 2019 with a degree in Business and Marketing Education with an emphasis in Political Science. Jenna Kay is passionate about enabling culture change through an intersection of equality in STEAM, business, and policy. She participates in various startups, FIRST robotics, and consuming mass amounts of cream cheese rangoons.

Nick Skytland | Nick has pioneered new ways of doing business in both government and industry for nearly two decades. He leads the Future of Work initiative at NASA and is the Agency Talent and Technology Strategist in the Talent Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).

Future of Work Theme 2: Redefining Talent

At the intersection of mission and people is NASA’s need to redefine talent, not just talent acquisition. The workforce of tomorrow joins organizations through ever changing methods and channels and, upon onboarding, remains for the duration of a task/project and departs with the potential to return based on work needs (nurtured by “revolving door” policies). This supply of talent is fluid to meet work demand. As such, the future accounts for and redefines talent on a continuum, ranging from the traditional full-time employee to crowdsourcing, inclusive of machines (Hagel & Schwartz, 2018). Application of the continuum is based on how companies access talent and how tasks are organized, with no one model best suited to acquire and match talent to task. Redefining talent requires organizations to both assess their ability to access such new talent pools and, in parallel, ensure work is restructured to harvest the most fruitful results from employing new talent models.

The role of organizations in the future will, in part, remain consistent: to organize talent around a particular purpose and collective goal—simple in theory, yet increasingly complex in practice. The availability of top talent is a genuine concern, not just for NASA but for all organizations. As technological exploitation increases, jobs are being deconstructed, redesigned, and retooled. The rise of robotics is intelligently augmenting the workforce. The gig economy of global freelancers are successfully able to inventory their skills, identify market needs, and map their skills with those needs to work across multiple organizations simultaneously.

From the rising use of contingent freelance workers to the growing role of participatory exploration and citizen science in accomplishing core NASA mission goals, non-traditional workers are becoming an increasingly important source of talent. Today, more than one in three U.S. workers are freelancers and this number is expected to grow to 40 percent by 2020 (Wald, 2017). Satisfaction will likely rise as paying gigs reflect the changes organizations are making to accommodate freelance workers. For companies, a viable “human cloud” that augments the reduced number of staff on payroll is an increasingly appealing proposition.

The talent management approach employed by NASA today limits the Agency’s ability to take advantage of the dynamic talent pool now afforded by the future of work. The current talent approach must maintain compliance with federal regulations, specifically Title V, that are rigid and restrict employment durations, reinstatement terms, and candidate qualification criteria. As the life of projects and tasks become more fluid, NASA must be afforded the flexibilities and hiring authorities to appropriately match the length of employment with new durations for work. Such flexibilities are only the starting point. The Agency requires unified approaches that take insights from in-house analytics and look beyond the fields and industries from which NASA has traditionally filled positions to find and “qualify” STEM talent, inclusive of custom recruitment and hiring strategies for talent niches, multi-discipline workers, and emerging disciplines. Research examples specific to NASA that would greatly benefit from these strategies include filling needs for mechatronic engineers or electronic parts engineers with radiation effects specialties (suggested as the intersection of aerospace and electrical engineering).

As NASA contemplates how to capture the opportunities afforded by a redefined talent pool, an overarching action surfaced: craft a multifaceted talent strategy to identify and value talent based on the redefined talent pool (ranging from the traditional full-time employee to crowdsourcing, inclusive of machine talent). Examples include embracing and placing gig workers and freelancers for short durations by easily employing, un-employing, and re-employing employees across years (revolving door concepts); crowdsourcing complex problems and inviting the public to participate with NASA; expanding the use of virtual interns and virtual workers on ad-hoc bases; and expanding phased-retirement and Emeritus programs.

Strategic and programmatic workforce planning, talent acquisition and management practices must account for an enduring force resilient to shifting mission priorities, coinciding with the need to flexibly match talent to growing dynamic work. Such strategy development must begin with a greater understanding of NASA work, both today and tomorrow, in defining workforce needs for the future, and then merge this awareness with vastly different and readily available talent pools.

Taking these measures to redefine the workforce beyond the full-time, permanent civil service base and long-term contractors will require new talent codification, enhanced and new flexibilities, alternate architectures, refreshed practices, and radically different mindsets across the Agency.

About the Authors

Nick Skytland | Nick has pioneered new ways of doing business in both government and industry for nearly two decades. He leads the Future of Work initiative at NASA and is the Agency Talent and Technology Strategist in the Talent Strategy and Engagement Division within the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO).