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GAO: Better Assessing Employees’ Skill Gaps Could Help FAA Prepare for Changes in Technology

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relies on a workforce of nearly 45,000 to operate the national airspace system. Changes in the aviation industry—including emerging technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence—will require FAA to increase oversight and seek additional critical skills for its workforce.

FAA has identified critical skills needed for its workforce to respond to technology changes. However, the Government Accountability Office says FAA’s assessment of the skills of its current workforce was insufficient to show how many employees have needed skills and where the skills gaps are. 

In 2018, FAA’s Office of Human Resource Management began an agency-wide Strategic Workforce Planning Initiative to assess the skills FAA’s workforce needs today and will increasingly need in the future. These skills include data analytics, project management, and cybersecurity skills.

Individual FAA offices also conduct workforce-planning activities. Selected offices have taken steps to identify critical future skills, such as specific technical skills for the engineers in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

FAA also has taken steps to determine whether its workforce has the skills needed to respond to technology changes, but GAO has found these efforts have not been quantitative nor have they included all mission-critical occupations. In 2019, FAA conducted interviews with managers and staff to collect officials’ perspectives on what skill gaps exist. While the qualitative interviews yielded useful information on the skills needed, GAO determined that they did not provide measurable data showing how many employees have the skills needed and where gaps exist. 

FAA also obtained some information on skill gaps in its workforce from a 2020 Department of Transportation workforce assessment, but GAO says FAA’s response rate to that assessment was low, ranging from 12 to 25 percent. As a result, the information FAA has collected may not provide a complete assessment of whether its workforce has the critical skills needed to respond to technology changes including unmanned aerial systems, commercial space transportation, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing.

FAA regulates and oversees unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operations’ compliance, which includes prohibiting small UAS operators from operating in a careless or reckless manner that endangers the life or property of another, among other things. According to agency documents, the most significant example of a technology change that is affecting the national airspace system today is the introduction, adoption, development, and increasing use of small UAS. FAA estimates there were about 1.5 million small UAS in the United States in 2018, and the agency forecasts that there could be up to 3 million in the United States by 2023. This increase will inevitably impact FAA’s air traffic management, regulations, aircraft certification, and direct and indirect functions to keep the national airspace safe.

The commercial space transportation industry provides launch services that enable national-security and commercial satellites, among other things, to be sent into orbit for government and private customers. The FAA plays a critical role in commercial space transportation by ensuring the protection of public safety during launch and re-entry operations. FAA’s regulatory oversight responsibilities for commercial space transportation include licensing and permitting commercial launch and reentry vehicle operations (with a launch or reentry license) and nonfederal launch sites (through a site operator’s license), as well as conducting safety inspections of licensed launch providers and site operators. In 2020, the FAA licensed 41 commercial space operations (launches and reentries), the most in the agency’s history. Those operations included 39 FAA-licensed launches, including the first ever NASA-crewed mission to be licensed. For 2021, the FAA is forecasting the number of licensed operations could reach 50 or more. In its Strategic Workforce Planning Gap Analysis Report FAA identified commercial space expansion and certification as one of several future state scenarios that will affect its workforce needs in the coming 1-3 years. According to FAA, it will need to assess the readiness of its workforce to meet the rising need for certification and regulation-related activities within the next 1 to 3 years. In addition, in September 2020, FAA issued a rule that amended its commercial space-launch and reentry regulations to streamline the launch and reentry licensing requirements. The rule incorporates performance-based requirements that provide applicants flexibility in how they achieve required safety outcomes. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation will need to ensure that it has the right number of staff with the appropriate expertise to conduct the analyses that will be required under the amended regulations. 

Emerging technological developments related to automation and artificial intelligence will increasingly be incorporated into new aviation products and will affect FAA’s aviation workforce. For example, industry representatives told GAO that as aircraft become equipped with automated self-diagnostic capabilities, maintenance technicians will need to adjust to skills needed to evaluate the faults and take corrective action. In addition, labor representatives stated that technological developments related to automation will increase the agency’s need for more engineers with in-depth knowledge of software engineering, systems engineering, cybersecurity, and related fields. 

Additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing) of aircraft parts is increasing as it is a cheaper alternative to traditional titanium manufacturing and allows for the production of more complex aircraft parts compared to more traditional manufacturing processes. The production and processing of this type of manufacturing requires FAA approval, and according to FAA, to ensure the safety of aircraft, the agency will need to conduct research on the suitability of new materials. According to FAA’s Aviation Safety Office officials, their office has been working to develop its expertise and capabilities in additive manufacturing through targeted hiring and training to ensure that their workforce has the ability to certify that products meet required safety standards. FAA is also developing an additive-manufacturing road map, which will include training and education, development of regulation documents, and a research and development plan. 

Recognizing the limitations set out in GAO’s May 13 report, FAA officials intend to conduct additional skill gap assessments. However, officials told GAO 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. 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. GAO says these efforts represent positive steps and could help FAA conduct more comprehensive skill gap assessments in the future.

GAO has recommended that FAA ensure that planned skill gap assessments, conducted in coordination with FAA offices, are quantitative and include all mission-critical occupations. FAA concurred.

Read the full report at GAO

 

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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