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By Jonathan Behrens
Just before House appropriators advanced spending legislation for the Department of Energy (DOE) this spring, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) announced her interest in addressing the impending wave of retirements at federal laboratories. Kaptur has considerable influence over DOE’s 17 national laboratories as chair of the subcommittee that prepares the House’s spending proposals for the department. She also raised more general concerns about the ability of the U.S. to develop its domestic scientific workforce.
“I just wanted to say to the entire committee, there’s one area I’m really uncomfortable with,” she began. “We didn’t address it heavily in this bill because I don’t have the formation of the idea complete in my mind, but just know I’m deeply worried, as one member, about the ability of our country to recruit Americans to work at the highest levels of science in this country.”
Citing conversations with directors of federal laboratories, she said that “30 to 40% of their highest-level scientists” are nearing retirement age, representing a serious recruitment challenge that is exacerbated by the private sector’s ability to offer higher salaries.
“So I am looking for ideas,” she continued. Pointing to the military academies such as West Point as one potential training model to consider, she added, “Why couldn't the country think about how to piece together an initiative that would help to draw young people into the sciences using the power of our research labs?”
Among the federal labs facing significant staffing challenges are the three overseen by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA): Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories. Together they certify the safety and reliability of the current nuclear weapons stockpile and support a broad portfolio of scientific research.
NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty has stressed the labs’ growing workforce needs at several congressional hearings this year. Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, she noted that more than 40% of NNSA’s workforce will be eligible for retirement over the next five years at a time when the agency is facing its heaviest workload since the end of the Cold War.
“Los Alamos is looking to hire 1,000 people this year. Sandia is looking to hire 1,000 this year. Livermore is looking to hire 500 people,” she told the committee. “We're talking about really thousands of people in our workforce, not only in the next five years, but now, in order to handle the increasing workload that's on us.”
NNSA is currently undertaking a comprehensive modernization of the nuclear security enterprise to address shortfalls stemming from aging infrastructure across the weapons complex. Through its Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump administration has also directed the agency to develop a weapons workforce and production infrastructure that is more “responsive” to potential shifts in the geopolitical or technical landscape.
Gordon-Hagerty said it is crucial that NNSA develop a new paradigm for recruiting given the magnitude of its staffing needs. She explained the agency is experimenting with new mechanisms to attract and develop technical talent. These include partnering with universities to develop training programs for specific areas of need, such as radiological technicians, and holding much larger recruitment fairs that leverage rapid hiring procedures.
“We're finding different ways of trying to resource, if you will, or source the next generation, the best and brightest. And those are scientists, those are engineers, those are technicians,” she said.
The author is a Science Policy Analyst with FYI.
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