EP76: NASA Space Center Houston - How to Hire Specialized Skills Talent

January 17, 2024
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All-In Recruitment is a podcast by Manatal that focuses on all things related to the recruitment industry’s missions and trends. Join us in our weekly conversations with leaders in the recruitment space and learn their best practices to transform the way you hire.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Lydia: Welcome to the All-In Recruitment podcast by Manatal, where we explore best practices, learnings, and trends with leaders in the recruitment space. If you like our content, please subscribe to our channels on YouTube and Spotify to stay tuned for our weekly episodes.

I'm your host Lydia and with us today is Brady Pyle, Vice President of HR for Space Center Houston and retired NASA HR executive. A pleasure to have you with us today, Brady.

Brady: It's a pleasure to be here, Lydia. Thank you.

Staying Connected with NASA

Lydia: So, NASA, Space Center Houston. There are so many questions to ask and I can't wait to dive in. I want to just start off with; what are some key areas of priority for you at Space Center Houston? What makes your role special here after you’ve retired from NASA? Because you spend quite a bit of time there.

Brady: I was brought here to help Space Center Houston sustain its strong organizational culture as it prepares for significant growth. Space Center Houston is a small nonprofit organization. We have about 160 full-time employees and another 200 or so part-time and seasonal employees.

It’s great to be here to bring the lessons from NASA to this role, and to also remain connected to NASA. Space Center Houston is the official visitor center for the Johnson Space Center here in Houston. It’s nice to remain connected in that way.

Lydia: In terms of proximity and geography, is it close?

Brady: It's right across the street and Space Center Houston sends trams on-site as the only way visitors can get on-site to the Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston for our tram tours.

Lydia: What are some areas of priority that you've set for this growth that are great to see in this space?

Brady: So, we’ve set in place a leadership development strategy to really grow leaders. We’ve also put in place a talent strategy principle that we will fill half of our new positions with internal talent. We’re putting in HR strategies to really grow the talent and capabilities of people who are on board today. We aim to grow and expand leadership capabilities through your courses, mentoring, and coaching as well. Those are some things that we’re putting in place now to sustain that culture and that growth going forward.

Defining and Setting Up a Workforce in NASA

Lydia: You’ve been with NASA for close to 30 years. So, in what ways has the role of an HR leader changed in your view?

Brady: Over the course of my career, HR has always been about attracting, developing, and retaining talent, and taking care of employees. I think what’s changed over the years is a couple of things. One, becoming more proactive and data-driven for workforce planning and analysis. And then number two, I think, is HR’s responsibility to steward the organization’s culture, through policies, programs, and accountability. I think that’s really become more of an emphasis, both of those things, over the course of my career.

Lydia: Space exploration programs are particularly ambitious. So, in what ways do these plans actually impact hiring policies in practice?

Brady: Space exploration programs are also very long-term. Whether it’s the space shuttle program, the International Space Station program, or the upcoming Artemis program, these are 30-year programs. You really have to take a long-term view of the organization when you’re looking for the right skills and capabilities.

NASA hires government employees, and the vast majority are going to stay for 30 years. So, you have to be very strategic about whether you need this particular skill for 30 years. If you don’t, we have a variety of relationships with contractor companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and a lot of smaller companies, too. They can hire different skills, and we can leverage our prime contracts to get skills. So, it’s a very long-term planning process and you have to be very strategic when you’re going to hire someone for NASA versus leveraging that skill through our contractor community.

Lydia: We’ll move into the point of continuity for these programs later. In terms of defining and setting a workforce strategy, how do you go about defining and setting a workforce strategy maybe in your experience at NASA?

Brady: Yes, my experience was that you just had to bring the right leaders across the organization together to look at what you needed. There was a big prioritization process. When I worked at the Johnson Space Center, we had a workforce of about 3,000 employees. One of my previous HR leaders used to say, ‘Hey, if you polled the frontline supervisors, we would need 1,000 more people all the time, because there’s always more work than people.’ But that’s why you have a management structure in place at the division level, director level, and ultimately, the center director at the Johnson Space Center makes decisions about hiring priorities.

So, you bring the people together and get the information, and then you work up the management chain to prioritize and really understand the skills that you need over the long run for these space exploration programs.

Elements Needed in the Area of Human Spaceflight

Lydia: What are some elements that go into assessing future talent needs in the area of human spaceflight? I understand that it is ultimately a long-term plan. Do those elements of those factors remain as they are or do they change in this course of time?

Brady: I think one of the things we really look for is the enduring elements of our culture. NASA really hires for its core values. It’s looking for people who demonstrate excellence, people who have integrity, people who perform safely, and teamwork is also a huge core value of NASA.

So, when we’re assessing talent, we’re looking for that track record of excellence. Do they have the technical discipline competency that we need? Do they have a record of achieving that over time? Also, we’re looking for people who are team players and can excel in an environment of teamwork. Some of the smartest people that we find in the market are great individual contributors, but they won’t be good at NASA because they don’t work well in teams. So, that’s a big part of our hiring process as well.

Lydia: How do you assess that in terms of the hiring process in terms of the length, or making sure you've really got the right kind of person to stay with you for the course of 30 years, for instance? Or 10 to 20 years maybe.

Brady: So, we do a couple of things. We tend to have people interview with a variety of people in the organization, and we get multiple perspectives. However, we use behaviorally-based interviews. We look to assess what have you done. We don’t ask questions like ‘What would you do?’ or ‘What is your philosophy?’ We want to know what the individual has done in their career. How have they worked things? What have they accomplished technically? What we’re listening for in a lot of cases is the ‘we’ language of teamwork. ‘We accomplished this as a team.’ When people are talking about their own accomplishments, you can kind of parse those out from the candidates who talk more from the teamwork perspective.

Not Using Technology to Evaluate Candidates

Lydia: You’ve also talked about cultural fit or rather the team mindset comes into play. It’s front and center for the kinds of candidates that we look for. So, let’s move into the selection process.

Who are the key people or the key segments that you would hire for? Maybe walk us through a little bit about the selection process for astronauts, for instance. I mean, this is the first thing you could think of. NASA and its astronauts. So, what goes into the selection process for an astronaut?

Brady: Astronauts are certainly the face of human spaceflight and NASA. So, astronaut selection and hiring is very unique and it’s very different compared to other roles at NASA. We invest a lot in making sure we get the right people in the astronaut position. If I rewind and look at our 2017 process, we had more than 18,000 applicants. That was partly due to the release of a movie called ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon. People could see themselves as an astronaut on Mars. It provided a unique insight into an astronaut’s life.

Of the 18,000 applicants, about 12,000 were qualified. So, 1/3 were not qualified. That’s the typical rate when we put out an astronaut announcement. About 1/3 of the people who apply don’t meet the qualifications. A lot of people want to get a copy of the rejection letter through the process so they can post that on their wall.

Out of the 12,000, we had 75 HR professionals actually go through and sort those candidates into discipline groups. We’re looking for pilots, flight test engineers, biological and medical science, physical science, engineering, and operations. When we did that, there were about 440 highly qualified applicants. We conducted 11 weeks of interviews. In our first round of interviews, we brought in 120 of those 440 and whittled that down to 50 for the second round. We had psychological, behavioral, and medical testing that was split between those first and second-round interviews.

A lot of those tests occurred during the second round because of the expense involved in those tests. We had 616 tests that involved people from 23 different institutions and ultimately ended up selecting 12 for that class. We had six people from the military, six were civilians, and we had five women selected because part of this class was the Artemis program. We have a commitment through Artemis to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon.

So, we’re really intentional about getting women and people of color into the astronaut corps. Then in June of 2017, Vice President Pence actually introduced the class. That introduction reached almost 2 billion people on social media. Then we had almost a million live views of that event. So, there was a lot of interest and excitement around the 12 astronauts who were selected.

Lydia: So 18,000 applicants down to 12 astronauts selected and then beamed again to 2 billion people who are going to see their potential and possibly their face over there. So, there's a lot of anticipation built. Going back to the 75 HR executives who look through these applications, what is the actual impact in terms of operations on HR when it comes to the selection process?

Brady: Of course, astronaut selection is our highest priority. Other priorities that we might have taken a backseat in the hiring process. So, we had 75 of our team members, and we had about 400 team members at the time. So, a little less than a quarter of our team was dedicated to a two-week process of reviewing those 12,000 applications and narrowing it down to the highly qualified list. We put a lot of effort into this. We wanted each application to be individually read.

It was actually individually read by two different HR professionals. So, we had a couple of folks looking at each application to make sure that we were moving through that process appropriately.

Lydia: Is there any use of HR technology or recruitment technology in this whole process, being it so critical to the mission? Is there a filter or technological use in that early [hiring] stage?

Brady: We collected the applications and the information electronically. But we actually had humans look at each application and this is consistent with the benchmarking that we have done with Google because they actually review each application by person.

We figured if Google was doing that, and not using technology to evaluate candidates, there’s something to pay attention to there.

It’s About Inclusion and Innovation

Lydia: Moving on to senior leadership at NASA. What might be a differentiating mindset for a senior leader in this institution and how might this be evaluated? What might be some questions that you would ask?

Brady: So, senior leaders at NASA need to really fit the culture of inclusion and innovation. They need to embrace diverse perspectives. They need to encourage innovation and creativity. And they need to help others be their best. Again, we’ll use behaviorally-based interview questions to focus on what they’ve accomplished. We say, ‘Hey, tell me about a time when you encouraged creativity in your team. What were the results? How did you embrace diverse perspectives in your role? What did that look like and what were the results? Describe a time when you helped one of your team members become their best, and perform at their best level.’

We want to hear those kinds of examples and real accomplishments in order to assess if they fit our culture of inclusion and innovation.

Lydia: Speaking of inclusion, how do you go about promoting an inclusive culture at NASA or even at Space Center Houston?

Brady: I would say, first, teamwork is just such an imperative at NASA, it’s just part of the fabric. We want everyone to be included. When we look more broadly at some of our employee engagement surveys, our inclusion index scores a few years ago were the best in the government. They were at about 80%. No one else in the government was that high. But when our leadership looked at that, they said, ‘Okay, but we’re at 80%, that means one in five of our employees does not feel included.’ So, let’s take a hard look at that. How can we make improvements to drive more inclusion across the organization? The last survey data I saw when I left showed the inclusion index was up, just over 85% and this is across an 18,000-member workforce. So, I think it just shows that if you really focus on it, and focus on improvement and involving everyone, you do make improvements. That’s what I saw over the last several years.

Succession Planning for Key Leadership

Lydia: Now, a key point you brought up earlier was continuity and staying through that long period for every plan that comes from the human spaceflight program. So, succession planning is obviously critical for continuity. How do you approach or did you approach succession planning for key leadership roles or even any role within the human spaceflight program?

Brady: Yes. So first, our philosophy was to grow leaders at all levels and increase the capacity of leadership for each of our leaders. I spoke a little bit earlier about the 70-20-10 approach that we adopted from the center of recruiting and leadership. One of the things we do during a succession planning discussion is we’ll have the senior leaders get together and talk about the pool of candidates that they have on their teams.

We’ll look at what kind of assignments they need to really grow and improve in their roles and build capabilities. Do they need mentoring? Is there specific mentoring that they may need? Are there leadership training or leadership classes that they need? We’ve also leveraged the organization to better up and do virtual executive coaching, and paired executive coaches with leaders of various levels to improve their capabilities as well.

So, we’re looking at building those capabilities up, but the discussions among the senior leaders were key because they would give perceptions about potential leaders in the pool. Then HR would collect that data, and work with the supervisors to have a development conversation with the employee; “Here’s how you’re perceived, and here are the suggested development opportunities.” That information was invaluable to different leaders. I know for me growing up in the organization, it was invaluable to hear perceptions, things I needed to work on, and things I needed to focus on to develop and grow in the organization. So, developing those growth plans with that data was very helpful to our succession planning processes.

Lydia: Space exploration programs and the human spaceflight program are obviously one of those unique spaces in which you’re dealing with unknowns. There are also many things that you may be discovering over the course of two decades, for instance.

So, what are some strategies when it comes to collaborating with technical teams to understand and maybe support their talent needs? In terms of the selection of astronauts, there might be some criteria. But are there any other strategies that might go into this?

Brady: I think from my experience, from the HR perspective, our HR business partner model was huge in making sure that HR understands the business and the mission of the organization. Then the HR business partners would be at the table describing what kind of talent strategies were needed. Or they could translate different talent strategies that we were delivering from an asset perspective to the organization.

It’s about figuring out where to bring internal talent to meet an organization’s needs. Other times, it’s about developing longer-term strategies. How do we develop a pipeline starting with internships or a pipeline of college students coming in, because we’re going to see the longer-term needs of the organization? Or rotation programs. We use the development rotation programs a lot to bring talent from different areas, bring different perspectives to bear, and then grow talent capabilities across the organization as well. So, a key part of that model, they were the hub that figured out how to connect the dots to support the mission.

Lydia: In terms of data analytics to support these decisions, to support this kind of planning, to what extent has it made an impact? Now we're seeing so many different technologies that come into play. So, to what extent has data analytics impacted these practices that are already there?

Brady: I think data analytics have allowed us to make better decisions. We’re moving toward data-driven decisions instead of hunches or making decisions by anecdote. I think the technology and data analytics have also helped us advance our workforce strategy and workforce planning capabilities.

The more data we have, the more credibility we have at the table, particularly when you’re dealing with technical leaders and rocket scientists who are looking for certain talent solutions and strategies. When you come to the table with data, you have more credibility in those discussions.

Managing Different Generations in NASA

Lydia: Going back to employee engagement, are there any fundamental factors that would keep employees motivated and make them consistent throughout this period? Is there something that really drives those who work at NASA or even Space Center Houston?

Brady: It’s really pretty simple. It’s the mission of the organization. People want to be part of NASA because NASA is a civilian government agency that is trying to explore and discover the unknown, but also do things that improve life on Earth.

So, a lot of the technologies that are being developed for spaceflight end up benefiting us here on Earth and a lot of people want to be part of that. For Space Center Houston, people want to be part of an organization that brings people and space closer together. That’s our mission here. To inspire more students to study in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Both organizations have very exciting missions to be part of, and I think that’s why both organizations have a track record of attracting and retaining talent.

Lydia: But you would also probably see a vast difference in the kinds of generations that join NASA. You’ve got the entry-level, and then you’ve got the super senior one. Many different generations are within the workforce now and NASA, or anything related to space exploration, is certainly a dream for lots of them. What are some ways to manage or even facilitate this coming together of different generations within an institution?

Brady: That’s a great question. So, at one point, we had a formal mentoring program that was branded after the Star Wars character, Yoda. It was designed like Yoda for older employees to mentor and teach younger employees. We actually worked with Lucas Films and they developed that. We gave our mentors a Yoda pen.

But what we found after a couple of years of that, and staying in tune with the research, is that mentoring programs are most effective when it’s a dual learning experience, where each party is learning from one another. So, we actually had to step away from the Yoda brand name because that was getting in the way of dual learning and sharing. We promoted a new mentoring program. We had some reverse mentoring, where senior employees would mentor executives. We’ve had cross-mentoring, where sharing with one another became more of an emphasis. So, I think we’re learning how to operate in this intergenerational environment as we go, but we’ve learned some lessons along the way, by stubbing our toes a few times.

Lydia: We’re in the post-COVID era now and has it had any impact? And what is the impact of maybe these different work arrangements that we’ve seen now, like hybrid and remote? Has that had any impact on how the workforce is set up?

Brady: Yes. It had a lot of impact. I would say, again, that a culture of teamwork, is the fabric of NASA. A lot of that is built through in-person relationships and interactions. So, when we went into the work-from-home mode, team members who knew each other well did okay during that remote work.

It was harder as we brought new employees into the organization. Harder for them to get oriented and to really feel part of the team. So, post-COVID, a lot of our workforce has come back on-site at NASA. That was an emphasis because a lot of our workforce works with hardware and systems and tools where they need to be on-site and need to be interacting with one another. What was lost in the COVID time that’s hard to replicate is the hallway conversations among technical folks, particularly if they had a technical concern.

It may not be a big enough concern to raise to management, but you might have a hallway chat with a colleague about, ‘Hey, I’m kind of concerned about this.’ And we lost that in COVID because everything became more formal meetings. It was hard to replicate that informal gathering space, which is critical to human spaceflight. It’s because when people have concerns or issues, those need to be explored and that was a big concern among NASA leadership for a period of time. There’s a sense that we were losing out on some of that sharing of information.

Lydia: Was there a workaround for that? Was there some kind of solution or did that just have to go through the process?

Brady: We just had to work through it. There wasn't an easy way to replicate that yet. I think leaders tried to encourage people to interact more informally where they could. But for a lot of our engineers, being remote and at home, they would focus on tasks. They may not have the same level of interaction they have in person.

Removing Drudgery of Work and Unleashing Creativity

Lydia: Finally, Brady, just to close this off, we've just spoken about the trend that we've gone through, but it's a disruption that we've seen in the recent past. Looking forward, we're also going to see many different changes come in. So, in terms of HR, what trends do you foresee for the industry in the near future?

Brady: I was reading not too long ago that Microsoft has a work trend index, where they surveyed 31,000 people across 31 countries, and they looked at trillions of Microsoft 365 productivity signals and labor trends.

So, their CEO put out a report and said this new generation of Artificial Intelligence will remove the drudgery of work and unleash creativity. He talked about how there’s an enormous opportunity for AI-powered tools to help alleviate digital debts, build AI aptitude, and empower employees. So, I reflected a little bit on that. I mean, generative AI is a huge part of conversations about your hiring needs and I appreciate the bold claim that says, ‘Hey, it’s going to remove the drudgery of work,’ as they put it.

I can recall not too many years ago, arguments were made that automation would reduce our work weeks to 30 hours or less. Given the productivity gains we’ve made through automation and technology, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I think we’re working more now, with technology and with more information than we were back then. So, I think like a lot of technology advances over time, they can assist you.

Generative AI can certainly assist HR professionals, but you have to manage them, rather than letting them manage you.

That’s a big philosophy for NASA because they deal with robotic technology. They want people to manage the robotic technology and they want it to be an assistance for human exploration work. I would have that same philosophy about generative AI. We’ve got to stay on top of that and make sure that we’re managing it. It can tremendously help us do things like write job descriptions and screen hiring candidates. I mean, there’s a lot of different possibilities. It’s exciting to think about the future of HR with that kind of trend ahead of us.

Lydia: Has AI or any kind of AI tool or even generated AI in terms of ChatGPT, for example, been introduced into your HR process?

Brady: So, we are dabbling with things like job descriptions at Space Center in Houston. I know NASA was also trying to figure out how to leverage some of the AI tools, particularly with analytics. There are so many data points and things to look at from a workforce perspective. Can we leverage AI as assistance in summarizing or simplifying that?

Lydia: Thank you so much, Brady, for your time and your insights. It’s certainly intriguing to find out what the process is like to hire extremely specialized skills, and also, what it takes to make them stay for the long haul, what kind of person would stay for the long haul, and how you facilitate the different kinds of roles, the different types of mindsets that come into an organization for an institution like NASA as well as Space Center Houston?

Thank you so much for your time and your generous insights today. For those listening in who want to maybe pick up a conversation with you later, Brady, where can they find you?

Brady: Thank you so much for having me. One of the easiest ways to find me is through LinkedIn. I’m out there on LinkedIn and I like connecting with people and dialoguing that way, as well. To learn more about Space Center Houston, we’re at spacecenter.org. NASA is obviously at nasa.gov. And I do a blog about leadership on the side that’s at outofthisworldleadership.com. So, there are a lot of different ways to connect with the different topics we’ve talked about today.

Lydia: outofthisworldleadership.com is what I was looking at, and I really liked that by the way. So, thank you so much, Brady.

We have been in conversation with Brady Pyle, VP of Human Resources for Space Center Houston. Thank you for joining us this week and remember to subscribe to our channel and stay tuned for more weekly insights from All-In Recruitment.

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