Efforts to Modernize Forecasting Career Path Spark Debate at Weather Service

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NWS is looking to make its employees more versatile, but unions suggest ulterior motives.

The National Weather Service is attempting to establish a cadre of meteorologists capable of performing a number of different tasks, making employees more agile and useful to leaders in local government relying upon their joint expertise.

The agency is looking to shift away from the more siloed workforce model it previously employed, while in the process ending its practice of requiring meteorologists to simply provide forecasts from their desks inside their offices. To accomplish these goals, NWS has created a more fluid career path, consolidating different job labels into one and allowing the most qualified to advance up the ranks.

That is, if the workforce allows it.

The NWS Employees Organization has filed a grievance on the proposed changes, alleging violations to its collective bargaining agreement. The changes, the union said, would place additional barriers on career advancement and make it harder to move to more desirable locations.

The agency, however, said the proposal is in the best interest of its employees—in addition to taxpayers. The existing structure was created in the 1980s, said Kevin Cooley, director of the Office of Planning and Programming for Service Delivery at NWS, and no longer reflects current needs.

“Times change and the needs of public change and we're changing with those,” Cooley said. Maintaining a population of meteorologists “capable of performing all manner of functions is an imperative, and that’s why we’re making the changes from a more restrictive set of classifications in an office to a more general, flexible and adaptable classification that enables individuals to do all manners of tasks based on their grade and competence.”

In so doing, NWS aims to eventually end the job title of “meteorologist intern,” which Cooley suggested has negative connotations. The new system will enable what Cooley called an “impact-based forecast service,” an initiative to place meteorologists out in the field and working with local governments as much as possible. Such an approach allows the forecasters to forge stronger relationships and to better understand the needs of their clients. Rather than focusing on one specific skill, employees who enter the ranks at the General Schedule-5 level will have the opportunity for more holistic learning.

The core work that meteorologists perform will not change, but “the leadership of the forecast office at local levels will have more flexibility about how they organize the execution of that work,” Cooley said. “That flexibility will make them more adaptable to specific conditions that exist in their environment.” He added the initiative will “remove barriers” for entry-level employees to work with more experienced forecasters.

Developing relationships inside the office and with local partners will pay dividends in “very high-stress, life-threatening situations,” Cooley said. He noted as an example that when Hurricane Harvey passed through Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2017, meteorologists already engaging in impact-based forecasting had the relationships in place to tell local emergency managers exactly when the eye of the storm was passing through the city so rescue operations could take place.

“We were literally on the radio with them: ‘You’ve got 20 minutes left. You’ve got 15 minutes left. You’ve got 10 minutes left,' ” Cooley recalled.

He added that life-saving work was only possible because of the preparations the meteorologists had taken.

“They know our mannerisms,” he said. “We’re helping emergency managers make the best decisions they can.”

As NWS looks to engage in more of that type of cooperation, management plans to lean on the simpler job classification and smoother career path—paving the way from GS-5 to GS-12—to enable it. And from Cooley’s telling, the “consistent message” NWS has heard from the nearly 1,000 meteorologists impacted by the changes is one of excitement.

Dan Sobien, president of the NWS union, called that a “huge mischaracterization.” The employees’ union generally agrees with the principle of making it easier for those currently labeled as “interns” to make it to the top of that path, known as journeymen. Many of those affected, however, believe the specifics of the plan are designed to take away their rights.

“It’s a very thin veil,” Sobien said. “They’re trying to hide what they’re trying to do.”

Currently under the NWS Employees Organization contract, an employee hired as a GS-5 who maintains satisfactory evaluations and has done the qualifying work is automatically entitled to promotions. The new plan would take away that right, Sobien said, leaving it up to management to determine who receives those career ladder promotions. In a meeting with management last week, Sobien said agency officials denied that was their intention.

“The concept is not a bad one,” Sobien said. “The union has no interest in someone who is unqualified sitting in front of a radar. But there has to be some limitations there.”

Other concerns the union has voiced include making it more difficult for meteorologists to apply to new duty locations and opening up the possibility to the removal of hydrometeorological technicians. The employee organization has filed its grievance with management, which has another week to respond. If it does not, the petition will move to binding arbitration. Sobien expressed confidence his side would prevail.

“If they implement it, I think it’s very likely an arbitrator will tell them later this year they will have to unwind the whole thing,” he said. “Moving forward with this would be management malpractice.”

NWS said it only decided to implement the changes after a review of its workforce practices by McKinsey and Co. Cooley suggested employees should not have concerns about the new system as the agency has “a very competent workforce” and a “good number” of those eligible will earn their promotions. He added that most employees will see the ease at staying in one place as a perk, rather than a flaw of the changes.

Ultimately, he said, the reforms are aimed at appeasing the workforce and modernizing it in response to a more complex set of responsibilities.

The old system is “something that might have made sense in 1990, but doesn’t make sense now,” Cooley said. Now the agency will “give people the opportunity to get involved in a wider variety of work and our population of forecasters, especially our younger forecasters, are telling us that’s what they want to do.”

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