FAA Knows It Needs More Tech Experts, Just Not How Many

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The Federal Aviation Administration needs IT experts, as well as specialists in emerging technologies like drones and 3-D printing, but doesn’t have hard, quantitative data on those workforce gaps.

The nation’s airspace overseer knows it needs to bolster its technology workforce but doesn’t have hard numbers on which positions need to be filled and by when.

As of October 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration had approximately 45,000 employees, 4% of whom were categorized as IT specialists. The agency knows this won’t be enough to cover workforce gaps in the future—particularly for emerging technologies—but recent efforts haven’t put enough focus on gathering quantitative data on those gaps.

While the agency needs more computer, network and cybersecurity experts to join its ranks to keep up the constant evolution of IT, it also needs experts with knowledge of newer technologies that are changing the aviation sector like drones, 3-D printing, commercial space launches and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“As technology changes in the aviation industry continue to evolve, it will become increasingly important that FAA’s workforce-planning efforts are robust and adhere to leading practices,” auditors from the Government Accountability Office wrote in a new report.

FAA will need experts who understand these technologies in order to properly regulate them. And while officials have made it clear they understand this need, the agency doesn’t have data on exactly how many such experts it will need to hire over the next few years.

The agency conducted a workforce assessment in 2019 to identify areas where critical gaps existed or were imminent, but that effort didn’t tell the whole story.

“While the qualitative interviews yielded useful information on the skills needed, they did not provide measurable data showing how many employees have the skills needed and where gaps exist,” the report states.

A subsequent workforce survey in 2020 conducted by the Transportation Department garnered some additional information. But the response rate from FAA employees was low—between 12 and 25%—and so was of limited utility.

Through these surveys, FAA officials were able to determine mission-critical jobs that needed to be filled or would need to be created in the near future; critical skills that all or most FAA employees will need over the next three to five years; and niche skills—such as understanding small unmanned aerial systems, or UAS—that need to be filled.

Those findings were backed up by industry and labor advocates in the aerospace sector, GAO noted.

However, “While FAA has identified the critical skills needed, its effort to determine whether its current workforce has those skills has been limited,” the report states.

FAA officials are planning more surveys in the near future but have since realized that tactic won’t be sufficient.

“Officials said that because FAA is a large and dynamic agency, the process of completing agency-wide skill gap assessments will require better coordination with individual FAA offices,” the report states. “Thus, FAA has shifted its focus to developing a strategic workforce-planning policy and community of practice to facilitate agency-wide coordination on workforce-planning activities.”

These efforts will also include more quantitative—rather than just qualitative—data to solidify the planning process.

GAO applauded these “positive steps” and said FAA appears to be on the right track.

“Office of Human Resource Management officials acknowledge that, because FAA is a diverse and dynamic agency, it will take agencywide coordination and time to complete future skill gap assessments,” the report states.