Federal Aviation Administration:

Agency Is Taking Steps to Plan for and Train Its Technician Workforce, but a More Strategic Approach Is Warranted

GAO-11-91: Published: Oct 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 22, 2010.

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Since 2006, air traffic control (ATC) equipment outages and failures at Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facilities have caused hundreds of flight delays and raised questions about FAA's maintenance capabilities. About 6,100 technicians maintain FAA's current (legacy) facilities and equipment and will be responsible for the Next Generation (NextGen) technologies planned for the next 15 years. Safe and efficient air travel will therefore partly depend on FAA's having technicians with the right skills now and in the future. As requested, GAO reviewed how (1) FAA incorporates key practices of leading organizations in its workforce planning for technicians, (2) FAA's technician training compares with key practices of leading organizations, and (3) the costs of technician training, including travel costs, have changed in recent years. GAO analyzed FAA workforce and training data, compared FAA planning and training practices with criteria identified in prior GAO work, and conducted focus group interviews with FAA technicians and FAA Training Academy instructors.

FAA has followed some key practices of leading organizations in its strategic workforce planning for technicians but lacks a comprehensive, written strategy to guide its efforts. GAO assessed whether FAA followed those practices fully, mostly, or partially, or did not follow them. For example, FAA partially follows one practice--determining critical skills and competencies--because it assesses those skills and competencies its technicians now have to maintain legacy systems, but has just begun to identify those they will need to maintain NextGen systems. FAA also partially develops strategies to close the gap between the technician workforce it needs and the one that it has: It determines staffing needs annually, but lacks a longer-term strategy to address the hundreds of technician retirements projected through 2020. Without a comprehensive, written technician workforce planning strategy, FAA does not have a transparent road map to acquire and retain the right number of technicians with the right skills at the right time. FAA mostly follows other leading workforce planning practices, although it only partially involves key stakeholders--managers, but not technicians--in workforce planning and may thus be missing opportunities for improvement. FAA at least partially follows key practices of leading organizations in its strategic training and development for technicians, but it lacks a strategic training plan, and workload issues limit its ability to fully incorporate key leading practices. With the transition to NextGen, technicians will need to be trained both to maintain new systems and to remain proficient in maintaining the legacy systems that FAA plans to continue operating. FAA has partially implemented a strategic approach to planning for training in that it has established annual training goals and incorporated employees' developmental goals in its planning processes. As noted, however, it has just begun to identify the skills and competencies technicians will need to maintain NextGen systems. FAA mostly follows other key practices for design and development, such as developing a mix of in-house and vendor training. FAA is studying the feasibility of having vendors provide certain courses that are currently offered through the FAA Training Academy and are filled to capacity. FAA partially follows leading practices for implementing training and development, but workload demands often limit technicians' opportunities to attend training. FAA also partially follows leading practices for demonstrating how training and development efforts contribute to improved performance and results. For example, FAA identifies annual training goals, but does not link them to specific performance goals. As a result, it is limited in its ability to assess the effectiveness of its investments in training. Recent compensation costs for instructors at the FAA Training Academy have been roughly stable, while those for student travel to and from the academy and for training courses provided by vendors, exclusive of travel costs, have risen. The higher student travel costs reflect increases in air fares, and vendor training costs have grown as FAA has rolled out more courses for new equipment in preparation for the deployment of NextGen systems. Among other things, FAA should develop a written technician workforce planning strategy that identifies needed skills and staffing, and a strategic training plan showing how training efforts contribute to performance goals. The Department of Transportation provided technical corrections.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is conducting an analysis and alignment of its training programs for air traffic controllers and technicians, to include a strategic training improvement plan. The full analysis is expected to be complete by June 30, 2013. The complete product includes a comprehensive occupational job task analysis that is mapped to current curriculum and makes recommendations for improvement. Preliminary analysis of the existing Tech Ops job tasks and a sampling of 100 national-level courses conducted in FY2011 indicated the following: Tech Ops job tasks were not identified below the Activity/Sub-Activity level; Proficiency levels for training did not exist for Tech Ops; Complete Difficulty, Importance, Frequency (DIF) information was missing for Tech Ops job tasks; Approximately, a 29 percent alignment between the sampled course learning objectives and the assessments for Tech Ops; Approximately, 60 percent alignment between the sampled course learning objectives and the job tasks for Tech Ops Based on the preliminary analysis results, the ATO initiated a more thorough analysis of the technician job tasks. The goal was to establish an updated baseline task analysis and enable more strategic decision making regarding the use and priority of training resources as NextGen requirements for the Technical Operations workforce are identified. This analysis includes identifying the DIF of each task and the proficiency that each technician should have upon their completion of training. This information is a valuable resource when evaluating the need for refresher training and provides necessary data when prioritizing training. This allows the ATO to target limited resources more appropriately at the national-level, while allowing flexibility at the local level. The ATO concurrently initiated a deeper analysis of the current Tech Ops national training curriculum to identify unnecessary duplication and to develop a recommended curriculum aligned with validated job tasks for technicians. This analysis was completed in February 2013. Key upcoming milestones include: TBD* - Curriculum Map & Metrics: Tech Ops. Curriculum map defining common and specific courses, proficiency levels, potential delivery and instructional strategies, course metrics, and a rough order of magnitude for development. *This date is unknown due to ongoing contract negotiations and FAA subject matter experts availability during the furlough period.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire and retain the technician staff it needs to install, maintain, repair, and certify equipment and facilities in the national airspace system, in the current and NextGen environments, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement a comprehensive, written workforce strategy or policy for the technician workforce that incorporates the key leading practices in strategic workforce planning that FAA has not fully incorporated, such as determining the critical skills and competencies that will be needed to achieve current and future results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions FAA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire and retain the technician staff it needs to install, maintain, repair, and certify equipment and facilities in the national airspace system, in the current and NextGen environments, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to develop and implement a strategic training plan that is aligned with a written technician workforce strategy and incorporates key leading practices in training and development that FAA has not fully incorporated, such as determining how training and development efforts are expected to contribute to improved performance and results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2010, we reported on FAA's workforce planning and training for its technicians. We found that, with the transition to NextGen, FAA technicians will need training on both new (NextGen) and old (legacy) systems that FAA plans to continue operating, but that FAA had just begun to identify the skills and competencies technicians will need to maintain NextGen systems. We recommended that FAA improve the planning for any future NextGen systems training by including input from key stakeholders--such as FAA's NextGen Integration and Implementation Office, the Air Traffic Organization's Technical Operations Training and Development Group (training office), and technicians. In response, FAA has taken several steps to improve the planning for future NextGen systems training, including holding regular forums with key stakeholders and organizing biweekly national training teleconferences to keep stakeholders informed about key initiatives and obtain their input on training. FAA has also assigned representatives from its training office to various NextGen offices to obtain stakeholders input on their training interest as the FAA introduces new technologies. As a result of these efforts, FAA is better positioned to develop integrated ways to address specific performance gaps or incorporate necessary enhancements in the technician training curriculum.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire and retain the technician staff it needs to install, maintain, repair, and certify equipment and facilities in the national airspace system, in the current and NextGen environments, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to improve planning for any future NextGen systems training by including input from FAA's NextGen Integration and Implementation Office, Air Traffic Organization's (ATO) Technical Operations Training and Development Group, technician supervisors, technical experts, and technicians to develop an integrated way to address specific performance gaps or incorporate necessary enhancements in the technician training curriculum.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Technical Operations Training unit is responsible for tracking all expenses related to technician training. The Comprehensive Management Resource Information System resource management application records all in-house training conducted at the FAA Academy, which allows us to identify cost per student hour. While the agency?s cost accounting system is not capable of accumulating costs for vendor training and travel-related activities, these expenses are captured in the purchase request process in the Purchase Request Information System, the Regional Information System financial tracking system and, when travel is required, recorded in the Centralized Training Travel Management System or the Integrated Reporting Information System applications. We comply with federal acquisition guidelines to determine best value in selecting vendors for out-of-agency and facility technical training and with travel guidelines for employees. The FAA will use a combination of the existing accounting system and cost finding techniques to provide cost information that is needed to address specific issues that arise. Actions pursuant to this recommendation are considered complete.

    Recommendation: To ensure that FAA can hire and retain the technician staff it needs to install, maintain, repair, and certify equipment and facilities in the national airspace system, in the current and NextGen environments, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to consider modifying FAA's cost accounting system or cost analysis techniques to develop information about the cost of in-house and vendor-provided training and of the travel related to those training activities to assist Congress in understanding the costs of operations and making informed decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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