What Happens When Our Senior Scientists, Engineers, and Doctors Retire?

More than two-thirds of NASA employees are scientists and engineers, and NASA has one of the oldest workforces in the federal government – many of whom are nearing retirement. So what’s the plan for recruiting new scientific, engineering, and medical leadership talent?

Dr. Gina Scott Ligon, along with her University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues JoDee Friedly and Victoria Kennel, offer an answer in a new report for the IBM Center, in the context of the broader national shortage of talent in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) professions.

The growth of STEMM jobs is anticipated to increase faster than the supply of students studying in these fields. In fact, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimates, given present trends, that there will be one million fewer science, technology, engineering, and math graduates over the next decade than the nation is expected to need, unless changes are made.

The federal government has developed a strategy to close this gap for the nation as a whole, but has yet to develop a plan to close the gap for itself. The federal government today is a major employer of STEMM graduates and will need more STEMM graduates in the years ahead. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, must attract highly qualified scientists and engineers. And it isn’t just new hires. Agencies also need to plan long-term for career development and succession planning for leaders in technical agencies. Qualified executives cannot readily be hired from the outside, and preparing scientists and engineers to be leaders and not just experts is an art.

Currently, there is no government-wide plan to recruit and train entry level STEMM employees, nor is there a concerted effort to groom existing mid-career scientists, engineers, and doctors for senior leadership positions in their agencies. Responsibility for recruitment and succession planning is left to each agency to undertake on their own initiative.

Drivers for Action. The authors point to several drivers that technical agencies face that creates urgency in these agencies to develop a succession planning strategy. First, the Baby Boom generation is approaching retirement. While this has been talked about for years, it is now occurring. And with the turnover in the workforce, there is also turnover at the top. In addition, recent budget pressures have either reduced vacancies available or have left vacancies unfilled indefinitely.

Once an agency’s leadership agrees to address their STEMM pipeline – both at the entry and at the senior leadership levels – it needs to ensure there is an effective partnership between program and line managers, and the agency’s human resources office. Dale Colbert, a manager in the Department of Health and Human Services, says it often takes years of expertise in a technical domain to even know what skills to recruit for in technical positions. As a result, current leaders must be actively engaged in the recruitment and hiring process – it cannot be delegated to the HR office. Likewise, the technical leaders need to leverage the domain expertise of the HR leaders to ensure the right development framework and competencies for leadership are developed over time for these individuals.

The authors outline six steps for an effective succession planning framework in their report, however I’ll focus on the first – formulating a strategy for succession planning.

Strategizing a Succession Plan. The first step, say the researchers, is to proactively develop a plan of action. And this plan, for STEMM positions, needs to be different. The chief scientist at the Government Accountability Office, Dr. Tim Persons, says “our implicit assumption has been that the key to our future success is to be more like we are today. I am not sure this is true for the sciences, which change more rapidly than other fields change.” As a result, the strategic objective isn’t continuity, but rather being able to predict the needs for future capabilities. This can’t be done solely by human capital staff – it requires a strong partnership with technical professionals.

But it is not just technical skills that will matter. For example, Pearson cites how the changing mission of the Environmental Protection Agency has dictated a need for different types of scientific leaders. With EPA emphasizing greater community outreach, scientists in leadership positions needed skills to communicate in public town halls, etc. Understanding the strategic direction of the agency is an important element in developing any succession strategy, especially in technical fields that require a long lead time to develop staff.

Second, the organizational culture must ingrain succession planning as part of their job requirements. For example, the US Strategic Command has created a three-year “high potential” leadership program that rotates employees through different roles so they can be assessed for appropriate positions. And the Coast Guard and NASA both understand “the importance of shaping their replacements from day one,” according to the authors.

And third, the succession strategy should not focus only on vertical movement within an agency. The leadership of the Office of Naval Research understands the importance of exposing STEMM employees to other technical career options within their office. They do this by sponsoring periodic “career days” to acquaint staff with projects in other parts of the office. Oftentimes a horizontal move within their organization to a new function was a valuable way of enriching careers and keeping technical staff curious and engaged.

What’s Next? The authors conclude their report with two recommendations to agency leaders. First, have no shame — borrow best practices being used by other technical agencies. And second, proactively use mentoring, job rotation, and project-based learning experiences to grow leadership talent in house. For many of the technical positions in federal agencies, it is probably unlikely that executive-level technical talent can be hired from the outside, so they need to consciously and proactively develop a strategy to grow from within.

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