US government watchdog highlights FAA staffing challenges

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FAA by fiscal 2013 estimates that 38% of its workforce performing mission critical duties will be eligible to retire, creating a potential slip in the agency's institutional knowledge.

Those statistics were cited in a report released today by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) that examines FAA's management of human capital.

Breaking down those statistics by employee groups, GAO estimates that 42% of the agency's air traffic controllers and 48% of its aviation safety inspectors will be eligible for retirement by 2013.

In addition to facing the challenge of replacing institutional knowledge, FAA also needs to obtain the proper expertise to support the adoption of the NextGen air traffic control system.

FAA commissioned the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to identify the skills necessary to accomplish the NextGen transition, and strategies necessary for acquiring workforce competencies.

Based on NAPA's research FAA estimates a need to hire several hundred additional staff to support NextGen, and most of those employees will be part of the agency's acquisition workforce.

"However, as FAA attempts to hire these staff, it will be competing with a projected government-wide hiring surge," says GAO, citing a Partnership for Public Service Survey showing that from fiscal 2010 to 2012 the US federal government could hire more than 16,000 employees in the areas of general administration/programme management, engineering, finance and contracts.

Currently, FAA is developing a five-year acquisition workforce plan to address some of the challenges it faces in developing proper staffing for the NextGen transition.

Another challenge the agency faces in recruiting and retaining talented employees is its ranking near the bottom in both 2007 and 2009 in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, a survey published by the Partnership for Public Service and American University.

In 2007 FAA ranked 204 out of 222 agencies and posted a ranking of 214 out of 216 in 2009. GAO does note that the agency is taking action to improve employee satisfaction, including the establishment of a senior leadership development programme, and the creation of a more collaborative environment as evidenced through the work it conducted with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association on the implementation phase of the en route automation modernization system.

But GAO believes FAA needs to create accountability for success of those actions, noting the agency "has not made successful achievement of this goal a performance expectation for managers".

GAO's study was commissioned by Congressman John Mica who in a statement released today said FAA's performance-based pay system was dealt a severe blow by the automatic pay raises agreed to in a contract FAA reached with NATCA earlier this year.

He highlights the report states that 88% of FAA employees had been under one or more components of a performance-based compensation system, which is intended to help improve recruitment and retention of employees. The NATCA contract removed 16,000 members from that system, resulting in 55% of the agency workforce being covered under the previous compensation scheme.

"The new contract has created a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots at FAA," says Mica. "This will be detrimental to attracting highly qualified technical and degreed professionals who will seek employment elsewhere because of the disparity created by the politicization of the personnel system at FAA. "