Deploying Talent, Mobilizing Careers

Historically, organizations have defined their “talent” as an employee who works for one company, often in the same job or discipline, for their entire career.  The assumption is that the relationship between the employer and the employee will be a long one. However, the employee from a decade ago isn’t the same as the employee who we are starting to see today.  A number of recent studies report that although older employees may have stayed with their employer for careers lasting more than 20 years, it’s unlikely that their children or grandchildren will experience the same job tenure.  A longitudinal study by the American Bureau of Labour Statistics that tracks the frequency of job changes points out that even for the Baby Boomer generation, individuals change jobs frequently, and on average have held 11.9 jobs throughout their careers, from ages 18 to 50 (BLS, 2017).  

There are many reasons people change jobs, such as increased compensation or new opportunities.  One strong motivator for change, especially for younger employees in STEM fields, is an ongoing desire for new experiences and challenges that support their learning and development.  This inherent restlessness provides organizations looking for fresh ideas, new perspectives and a more engaged workforce with a unique opportunity, but it requires rethinking the definition of “talent.”

NASA is adopting a new definition of talent that includes the traditional full-time employee, but also recognizes the value of part-time workers who serve on short-term, project based assignments, emeritus employees who desire to contribute after retirement, and gig economy workers that contribute through an increasing number of channels.  NASA even recognizes that talent may include “machine talent” such as robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence and robots. As we broaden our definition of talent, we are also developing new ways to inspire, develop and mobilize our workforce.

Providing tools for development and growth remains an essential ingredient to success in the Future of Work. Good leaders ensure that the workplace offers plenty of opportunity to help people develop new skills, experience new roles and responsibilities, and advance into new career paths. They understand that when employees grow, their productive capacity increases. When their productive capacity increases, the capacity of the organization increases. For many, such as the development-oriented employee or rising generation of entrepreneurial gig workers, career mobility is an essential ingredient for their own personal development.

With this in mind, organizations are developing new strategies to tap into new talent and mobilize their careers.  A successful mobilization strategy identifies, develops and leverages the capabilities of a workforce and empowers them to seamlessly take on new roles and responsibilities to support the organization’s changing needs.  Google’s approach permits extensive latitude for employees to select their projects; other companies, such as McKinsey, fully exploit the use of the talent marketplace to efficiently match talent with opportunities.  

While the idea of encouraging employee development and mobilizing talent to meet organizational needs is clear, organizations may be held back by legacy talent management systems, processes and practices that have been designed to meet only the needs of the full time tenured employee.  For example, NASA does not have an agency-wide internal talent marketplace that broadcasts available opportunities. Instead, it has relied on a traditional “pull” approach to match talent with job opportunities. Although plenty of opportunities exist, they may not be visible to the full array of potential candidates.  This means that an employee has limited development or advancement opportunities and must rely on their own professional networks, personal initiative and self-assertion to organically grow their careers. Further, hiring managers are often pressed to achieve results with fewer resources and therefore has little incentive to encourage developmental exchanges across the Agency. This cumulatively results in organizational siloing, talent hoarding and a reliance on less formalized methods of identifying possible candidates.

To address this, NASA is designing a new internal talent marketplace that will give all employees the ability to discover new opportunities for development and advancement, such as details, rotations, and reassignments.  The goal is to improve the transparency and accessibility to these opportunities and provide managers an ability to better tap all Agency internal talent resources for their work. By developing a single, Agency-wide talent marketplace, NASA will be better equipped to share and assign talent across Centers, meet employees’ needs for growth opportunities, while expanding and refining the skills existing throughout 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).

The Future of Work

Over the past six decades, NASA has attracted relentless adventurers and brilliant explorers who have a passion to explore the unknown for the benefit of humanity. This workforce has achieved the impossible, from the unforgettable feats of the space race and Mars rovers, to building of the International Space Station and the development of new technology that has ushered unparalleled discoveries. As we contemplate the next 60 years, NASA recognizes that today’s environment is significantly different from that its past decades of success. Join us in this series as we explore the disruptors driving the Future of Work and provide insights our Future of Work study.  Each week we will publish a new post from our study and invite your feedback.  You can view the past posts by clicking any of the links below or simply scrolling down:

Future of Work – An Introduction
The Four Meta Forces – Mission, People, Technology and Place
Environment and Culture
The Future of Work Framework
Designing for Agility, Focusing on Impact
Redesigning for the future: the age of impact
Redefining Talent
The Future of the No-Collar Workforce
Learning and Developing for a Lifetime
Changing Attitudes Toward Learning & Development
Developing Cross-Generational Talent

Developing Cross-Generational Talent

Amidst a dynamic and ever changing workforce, NASA strives to support the growth and development of each employee during every stage of their career. Understanding the current state of this workforce is integral to improving and ensuring the success of NASA employees.

There are currently five generations that comprise the U.S. workforce, ranging in ages from 16 to 80+. The population of older workers – over age 55 – is growing as people choose to stay engaged professionally and/or not fully retire.  At NASA, 36 percent of employees are 55 or older, and 21 percent of NASA employees are eligible for retirement. NASA enforces no mandatory retirement age, and embraces and supports the rich diversity and experience of this critical cohort.

NASA Employee Ages Percentage of Workforce
Under 20 0%
20 to 24 2%
25 to 29 5%
30 to 34 8%
35 to 39 10%
40 to 44 9%
45 to 49 10%
50 to 54 18%
55 to 59 20%
60 to 64 11%
65 to 69 4%
70 or older 2%

While an older workforce can possess crucial institutional knowledge, it may be perceived as accepting, not challenging, the “status quo”, even though the opposite is true.  In a study by the SHRM Foundation, they found that most older workers are open to change, are interested in learning new things, and can play significant roles in contributing to or leading teams .  Likewise, a younger workforce may heavily leverage technology-based solutions, but may be perceived as “bucking the system” or not accepting workplace norms. Karen Higginbottom of Forbes writes, “In a multi-generational workforce, there is potential for negative stereotyping….Organizations need to take steps to ensure managers overcome their unconscious bias.”  

NASA is working to bridge the generational gap to prevent negative stereotypes from inhibiting the workforce. Mentorship programs and collaborative projects create opportunities to reduce this unconscious bias. NASA Headquarters Modern Mentoring Program brings these two generations together to build a new united working culture at NASA.

Creating an array of educational programs and initiatives, NASA has also begun to close the gap between students and older generations working at NASA. NASA offers internships, fellowships, workshops and many more opportunities. Summer programs such as NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration provide students interested in science and engineering with the opportunity to become apart of the NASA community. The Pathways Program at NASA additionally provides internships to highly motivated students whom are then considered for Federal employment. Fostering relationships with students and potential employees, helps NASA to create an productive working community amongst all age groups.  NASA Emeritus Programs support retirement-eligible employees with continuing to work in their careers on a voluntary part-time basis, and to train and mentor their successors. For example, After working at Goddard Spaceflight Center for 49 years, and at the age of 84, Vince Gigliotti retired but immediately returned as an Emeritus because of his sense of duty to continue working.

The multigenerational workforce is a driving force of change for organizations. NASA will continue to encourage and incentivize mutually beneficial cross-generational learning to bridge the gap between a new generation of talent and established NASA employees, as well look for new innovative solutions to engage all employees as it embraces the future of work.

About the Authors

Suzanna (Neely) Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA.  She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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).  


Changing Attitudes Toward Learning & Development

At the heart of the Future of Work is a changing attitude towards learning and development. In today’s modern work environment, workers have an increased responsibility for their own formal and experiential learning. Careers are no longer linear or “owned” by a corporation, and learning needs are increasingly diversified and personalized. By enabling and equipping employees to have a hand in their own learning and development, an organization can offer valuable trust to their workers that will be repaid in innovation, loyalty and productivity. Instead of prescribing an employee’s learning opportunities, the leading organizations are those that support relationships and environments that support and enable self-driven learning and development.

In fact, trends show that workers actively seek the jobs and communities which support their desire to learn. In the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan write that it is a company’s responsibility to support employees’ requests to learn. Employees want “the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job” (Chamorro-Premuzic, Swan). NASA is committed to taking this fundamental need seriously and making it possible for employees – but at the same time allowing that development be self-directed.

Without a collaborative learning environment amongst employees, the profound discoveries and scientific advancements of NASA would not have been possible. In 2006, NASA took steps to improve this community even further. In a report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003), the Board concluded that NASA did “not demonstrate characteristics of a learning organization.” The two connected challenges, “integrating knowledge management and creating a learning organization,” were addressed at the Goddard Space Flight Center where a learning-loop was created to encourage continual learning. This Goddard system of learning included six major practices: Pause and Learn (PAL), Knowledge Sharing Workshops, Case Studies, Common Lessons Learned, GOLD Rules and The Road to Mission Success.

Some of these practices have been produced significant cultural changes in how learning happens within the Agency. Pause and Learn is a simple conversation among members of a team, typically conducted after a significant event or project milestone. Facilitated by a knowledgeable outsider who helps the team identify and capture knowledge gained at key project stages, the team then documents the essential elements of the conversation in the form of knowledge maps. The GOLD Rules (Goddard Open Learning Design) focus on applying proven, fundamental engineering design and practice to product and project management. They provide a sufficient common foundation without being hyper-specific about implementation, allowing for the needed flexibility for growth and innovation.

Upon implementing these practices, the Goddard Space Flight Center has progressed tremendously. This system has built a productive learning organization in the face of the Columbia report. However, NASA must continue to “reinforce learning behavior that enhances mission success across projects while investing in human capital strategies that assure sustainability in the future,” wrote Richard Day and Ed Rogers in a NASA publication. NASA is rooted in continual development, improvement and change, which has ultimately benefited the learning community. Culture is core to strategy, and these types of local practices have developed a learning culture at NASA that must precede more formal development.

NASA promotes growth-based careers through both formal and informal learning opportunities. Within these growth-based careers, talent exchanges such as team rotations and task forces can promote creativity and exchange of ideas. The ambition and capacity of employees to steadily learn and grow is not only beneficial to the individual, but to an individuals’ working teams and the organization as a whole.

For formal education such as classes, and workshops, NASA offers learning opportunities internally and provides limited financial support for educational experiences outside of the organization. Though the number of NASA employees receiving these educational stipends is one NASA hopes to grow, admittedly, budgetary constraints remain a challenge. Additionally federal law prohibits the organization, “from funding academic degrees for civil service personnel except through planned, systematic, and coordinated employee development programs that contribute significantly to meeting an individual training need.” NASA encourages employees to pursue formal educational ambitions as these are fundamental to the prosperity of both the employees and NASA.

Formal education isn’t the only (or even the best) avenue of development, though, especially as the nature and practice of work continues to change. NASA provides employees with the opportunity to learn informally or become a part of an experiential learning community.  Building a cohesive and diverse team is a great example of experiential learning in practice. NASA APPEL Knowledge Services has documented incredible stories across the Agency of lessons learned, project management case studies, and mission successes that were only possible because of intentional knowledge sharing. We learn by doing at NASA, and APPEL serves the vital role of making that learning available and effective for anyone who wants it. Mentoring programs build on that learning, giving employees relationships where they can ask questions and process ideas and thoughts outside of their normal teams.

The whole NASA team is constantly growing and adapting to the needs of the industry and the frontiers we are exploring through our the ever-changing, dynamic workforce. In order to create this collaborative learning environment, NASA continues to explore new solutions to further their formal education, improving team diversity and dynamics, and renovating physical spaces to promote further creativity. At the same time, employees are being encouraged to pursue development themselves, not waiting on NASA to prescribe or direct, but engaging their own interests and mentors, often cross-disciplinary and cross-silo. Learning and development cannot flourish from the top-down, and must be owned as the responsibility of every employee, not “for NASA” but “for their own curiosity and growth and interest.” It’s that kind of curiosity and daring that fuels the exploration that only NASA can do – and that creates the kind of people that NASA is so well-known for.

About the Authors

Neely Yates | Neely is a Content Hacker Intern at NASA. She studies International Political Economy and Computer Science at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. Neely is passionate about making STEM a more inclusive field. She has interned for Congressmen and local officials to advocate for her ideas. Neely also loves coding and learning languages. Whether she is talking to a human or computer, she likes to learn how to communicate in new, creative ways.

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).