WORKFORCE:

DOE, Interior eye employees jettisoned by space program

The Energy Department and the Department of the Interior are among dozens of federal agencies looking to hire some of the engineers and scientists from NASA's closing space program.

NASA and the Office of Personnel Management held a job fair yesterday in Cape Canaveral, Fla., less than a week after the space shuttle Atlantis landed. All told, about 5,500 contract employees at Florida's Kennedy Space Center have lost their jobs in recent months, and NASA contractors are expected to lay off another 2,000 over the next year.

For an area nicknamed the "Space Coast," the end of the space program is a blow. But federal agencies are swooping in to take advantage of a pool of employees they say have skills that are usually hard to find.

"They have these naturally transferable kinds of skills," said Angela Bailey, OPM's associate director of employee services. "The kinds of skills that might put the shuttle up in air are the same kind of skills used by Boeing or federal agencies to do things like green technology."

It is unclear how many former NASA contractors have found new jobs in the federal government. But representatives from 32 federal agencies attended yesterday's job fair, while several more are participating in a virtual job fair hosted by OPM and NASA.

Among them is DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where open positions range from nuclear engineers to carbon fiber researchers. Human resources director Debbie Stairs said Oak Ridge has hired NASA employees in the past with success. One potential area of overlap, she said, is materials research.

"For the material outside of the space shuttle, you want to make sure the temperature isn't too high when exiting and entering the atmosphere so the shuttle doesn't blow up," she said. "We look at it from materials perspective: What can protect the interior as well as the occupants?"

Interior's Bureau of Land Management has also targeted former NASA employees. While officials declined to provide details on what positions might best fit those who worked on the space program, listings on USAJOBS.gov included positions in the physical and engineering sciences.

"The Department of the Interior is committed to hiring the most qualified applicants possible for jobs across the agency," spokesman Adam Fetcher said in an email. "Those with prior experience working in America's space program are among the best and the brightest and we look forward to considering any applicants for relevant positions in the Interior family."

But such jobs are based all over the country, and many former NASA employees may be unwilling or unable to relocate. Brevard Workforce -- which helps find jobs for the unemployed in Brevard County -- has been working for four years to line up potential jobs openings with an emphasis on keeping workers in Florida.

So far, the organization has confirmed that about 550 NASA contractors have found new jobs, many locally, said Judy Blanchard, Brevard's director of industry relations. Part of the group's goal, she said, is to transform the Space Coast into a robust energy market.

Space Coast residents who worked on the space shuttle -- from maintenance to research to engineering -- are poised for jobs in alternative energy fields like photovoltaics, she said. Tracy Anania, NASA's director of human resources at the Kennedy Space Center, said many employees have also been working in fuel sources for sending both manned and unmanned rockets.

NASA has received calls from a wide range of employers -- from companies generating wind energy to those creating electric vehicles, she said.

Limited options on Space Coast

The pool of laid-off employees essentially consists of three groups: those who performed administrative duties, those who had technical jobs such as mechanics and those with high-level degrees such as engineers and scientists.

Community leaders are actively reaching out to the energy industry through the Space Coast Energy Consortium, which cropped up as an answer to the hole left in the local economy by the end of the space program.

"We recognize as a region how very important it is that we diversify our energy sector," Blanchard said. "We have the water, we have the sun, we have the highly skilled engineers and technical talent."

But unlike Houston -- where thousands of NASA employees are also finding themselves unemployed -- Brevard County is not a diversified metropolitan area. Former NASA workers also do not have as many options in the oil industry if they want to stay close to home, whereas Texas lawmakers have urged Interior to retrain space shuttle workers to inspect offshore oil rigs.

The entirety of Brevard County, meanwhile, has a population of about 600,000 people. Blanchard said local companies -- such as lighting product manufacturer Lighting Science -- have hired former Kennedy Space Center employees, and aviation companies such as AAR Aerospace and Brazil-based Embraer are setting up offices in the area.

But no one entity is the answer; companies hire five, 10, maybe 20 employees at a time when thousands need jobs. And Brevard County cannot hold them all.

"The federal agencies -- their career and job opportunities are worthwhile. We would be naive to think we can re-employ 8,000 employees here in Brevard," Blanchard said. "These are our friends, they're our neighbors, they're our families, so the ultimate goal is to help them become re-employed."

Yesterday's job fair illustrated the demand for jobs. More than 500 people showed up before noon, according to OPM officials, and the more than 60 employers who participated had open positions suitable for former NASA employees, Bailey said. The Department of Veterans Affairs hired eight employees the last time they visited, she said.

"This wasn't supposed to be about handing out trinkets or something," she said. "This was about real jobs."

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