What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

In 2017, 10.1% of the US workforce was engaged in some sort of alternative work arrangements, with practices like flexible work schedule, job-sharing, or telecommuting.  An even larger percentage of the U.S. working-age population identifies themselves as an independent worker, either as their primary or supplemental income. 60 million workers make up the gig economy, and this number is estimated to rise to the majority of the workforce by 2027. There is no doubt that the gig economy is here and having an enormous impact on the workforce.  It would be hard to write about the Future of Work and not consider the role and disruptive nature that the gig economy is having on NASA.

The gig economy is helping change the nature of work.  Independent contractors and freelancers have more flexibility and choice in the work that they do, but carry more of the economic risk as well.  For organizations that are dependent on a traditional system of full-time, lifelong hiring, the gig economy might feel like a sudden and unpredicted shift to how business has always been done.  However, there are plenty of examples of how companies are increasingly shifting non-core jobs, such as design, marketing, and human resources, to gig workers in order to focus on the things they do best, like manufacturing products or selling services (CNBC, 2018).   For some, the gig economy has a negative reputation that includes high job insecurity, lack of benefits and decreasing pay. However, the Harvard Business Review found gig economy workers “felt they had mustered more courage and were leading richer lives.” For many, trading in the corporate 9-5 job with a predictable paycheck for more autonomy and flexible work arrangements is worth it.

The gig economy been fueled by a shift in thinking about what it means to have a career.  Is it okay for an employee to have a lot of different interests, projects and curiosities that lead to multiple jobs?  Or is it better to “climb the career ladder” and become a master of your discipline? An Ottawa-based, career coach named Jean-Philippe Michel, teaches students to think about skills instead of careers.  Instead of asking “What do you want to be when you grow up,”perhaps the better question is “How do you want to be when you grow up?” (BBC, 2017) In focusing on skills and values, he encourages  his students to build transferable skills for the area of expertise they enjoy. Hence, if this area’s demand declined, or if they became bored with the repetition of it, they could translate their skills into another job with the same desired environment. This relates back to the idea of having tasks and skills dictate the job, instead of the job dictating the tasks and developing the skills. In the current workforce, it is already becoming common to straddle multiple areas within the same company. For example, I am writing this article for the Human Capital Office, I shoot videos for the Office of Education, and I design parts as an engineer. Companies like Cisco and MasterCard are taking this one step further by letting employees proactively pick projects they prefer in order to fill company gaps. Employees are empowered to choose projects based on skills they have and/or want to learn and develop. So far, the benefits of this internal freelancing has proven to be greater retention: it reduces turnover because the employees are able to find meaningful projects within their current company.

Consider the website and online community. Founded by Emilie Wapnick, an award-winning author, artist, and community builder, Puttylike is a community of people who call themselves multipotentialites: people who enjoy and want to pursue a variety of interests that are not usually related to one another. These are people always working on multiple projects, with tabs on tabs on tabs open in their browser and piles of books on their nightstands.  The community at Puttylike is made up of people who get bored after short bursts of doing the same thing and who are rapidly shifting and changing their interests, obsessively delving into one spontaneously, and then shifting yet again. The website offers an assessment (pictured above) that scores you on a spectrum from simultaneous to sequential and offers advice for multipotentialities based on the results.  This type of thinking is a shift from the current workforce landscape that heavily caters to specialists. Although some employees do fall in with just one particular subject that they hope to work on for an extended period of time, this doesn’t present many opportunities for multipotentialites.

NASA has traditionally offered plenty of opportunities for the specialist.  In fact, building, launching, maintaining and unpacking the discoveries of space missions is often a 10 or 20 year effort requiring the focus only a team of specialists can bring.  Without the role of a specialist, it would be nearly impossible to land a rover on Mars or sustain the International Space Station for decades. Some positions, such as a Flight Director, require at least a decade of on-the-job experience.  Yet, there is an equally large amount of research that points to the valuable role generalists, and multipotentialites, serve in the workforce. Generalists disrupt siloed thinking, challenge the status quo, and encourage interdisciplinary interactions.  A healthy workplace makes room for both specialists and generalists by focusing on the effective matching of the talent and passion of individuals with the work that needs to be done. Specialists can focus and generalists can disrupt.

Agencies like NASA are beginning to explore how they can offer alternative work arrangements and encourage workforce mobility in order to attract and utilize their employees more effectively.  In the future, NASA’s workforce will likely include part-time and full-time workers, generalists and specialists, multipotentialities and sequentialists. A larger percentage of talent will come from outside the current workforce, enabling more highly knowledgeable and passionate people to contribute to NASA’s mission. Inside NASA, employees will have more of an ability to pursue projects that align with their talents, passions, interests and development objectives. In this way, NASA will create a multidimensional and agile workforce, where job transitions are easier, job descriptions are more flexible, and talent is more effectively channeled.  

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).

Sarosh Nandwani | Sarosh is a NASA intern with experience working in the EVA, Crew Systems, and Robotics division at the NBL and is focused on expanding their VR capabilities. Sarosh attends UT Austin and will graduate in December 2019 with degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Anthropology. Sarosh is passionate about poetry and art and works part-time in UT Austin’s Defabrication and Electronics Lab, the MakerStudio, during the school year. She says hello to every dog she sees.


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. Career mobility is an essential ingredient for their professional and personal development.

This inherent restlessness provides organizations and leaders looking for fresh ideas, new perspectives and a more engaged workforce with a unique opportunity,  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.  However, engaging this new workforce requires rethinking the definition of “talent.” and strategies for mobilizing careers. Google’s approach permits extensive latitude for employees to select their projects; other companies, such as McKinsey, fully exploit the use of a “talent marketplace” to efficiently match talent with opportunities. 

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.

To address this, NASA is deploying an internal, Agency-wide talent marketplace accessible to the full workforce that will include a full range of permanent, part-time, detail, rotation and temporary positions.  Employees benefit through discovering new opportunities for development and advancement. Managers benefit through being able to more creatively and efficiently address work challenges as well as discover previously hidden talent, and the organization benefits by developing overall stronger capacity, including a more engaged workforce .

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).

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).