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).