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).