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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, GAO reported that FAA lacks a comprehensive, written strategy to guide its planning for its technician workforce--a workforce responsible for maintaining FAA's current legacy air traffic control facilities and equipment and Next Generation (NextGen) technologies in the future. GAO found that FAA is not fully incorporating key leading practices in its strategic workforce planning for technicians, nor does it have a comprehensive, written technician workforce strategy to help it identify and focus on the long-term technician human capital issues with the greatest potential to affect mission results. Further, FAA had partially implemented initiatives for meeting strategic human capital goals and analyzing attrition to evaluate its progress in workforce planning for technicians. The lack of a written strategy limits transparency, and thus the ability to evaluate and measure performance, in FAA's workforce planning approach. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA 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. In September 2015, FAA provided GAO with a draft of the technician workforce strategy document that FAA expects to be finalized by the end of September 2015. The document outlines FAA's on-going and planned initiatives to support technician workforce hiring, forecasting staff needs, and development. Specifically, to better follow the leading practice of determining critical skills and competencies, the strategy discusses an initiative involving an on-going job task analysis to identify the skills and competencies technicians need to address current needs--expected to be completed around January 2016--and later, a planned strategic job analysis to determine the "to be" skills and competencies needed for the workforce of the future. Secondly, to more fully follow the leading practice to develop gap-closure strategies, the document states that FAA's hiring targets are now developed using data from its staffing model, prioritization process, and estimated attrition. The document describes a new technician staffing model currently under development, which--as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in 2013--would be capable of predicting future staffing needs, identifying specific disciplines required, and examining the consequences of staffing decisions, among other things. Initial results from this staffing model have been used as inputs in FAA's technician hiring prioritization process, which determines hiring needs at a national level to prioritize hiring for the most critical staff. As a result, by incorporating these leading practices into its technician workforce strategy, FAA can better 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.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, GAO reported that FAA has not developed a strategic training plan for its technician workforce--a workforce responsible for maintaining FAA's current legacy air traffic control facilities and equipment and Next Generation (NextGen) technologies in the future. Technicians possess unique skills and are critical to safety and efficiency of the national air transportation system, as well as the successful implementation of NextGen. GAO found that FAA is not fully incorporating key leading practices in strategic training and development for its technicians, specifically in the areas of planning, design and development, implementation, and evaluation. For example, we found that FAA was partially following the leading practice of planning because it had not identified future training needs beyond the annual training cycle and had only begun to determine the critical skills and competencies that it will need to maintain NextGen systems. Without adequate planning, agencies cannot establish priorities or determine the best ways to leverage investments to improve performance. Additionally, we found that FAA had partially implemented practices--such as using some types of performance data to assess the results achieved--for evaluating its training and development of technicians. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA 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. In September 2015, GAO closed its recommendation to FAA for developing a written technician workforce strategy that discusses a planned strategic job analysis to determine the "to be" skills and competencies needed for the workforce of the future. The technician workforce strategy aligns with FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Technical Training "Strategic Training Blueprint" that outlines the strategic activities for providing technical training. Specifically, the blueprint summarizes the 1) establishment and maintenance of policies that govern technical training, 2) development and maintenance of national training curriculum, 3) development and maintenance of technology used to develop, deliver, and record the technical training and certification, 4) delivery of the training curriculum, and 5) performance metrics and assessments to track the results of the technical training delivery. FAA stated that the blueprint enables the ATO Technical Training Directorate to perform periodic maintenance on technician training curriculum based on the changes to existing systems and introduction of new systems, and uses periodic job task analyses and strategic training needs assessments to capture the introduction of new technology and procedural capabilities. Furthermore, to more fully follow the leading practice to evaluate training and development of technicians, FAA has implemented, through agency policy, an outcomes-based training program that includes a formal training evaluation program. As a result, by incorporating these leading practices into its technician strategic training plan, FAA can better identify the training needs to improve technicians' skills and competencies, prioritize the training that technicians receive, and ensure that FAA is benefiting from its training expenditures.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, GAO reported that, according to data provided by FAA, costs for vendors to provide training for technicians on new equipment have risen very quickly in the past few years. However, an FAA employee identified by the agency as a subject matter expert told GAO the agency's cost accounting system is unable to accumulate costs for vendor training and travel related activities. Specifically, these travel costs could not be accumulated because the funds for that travel are derived from multiple sources?including the system program office, a centralized training fund, and in some cases the local facility. FAA is subject to various laws and standards that have an effect on its development and use of cost information, including standards reported in the Statement of Federal Financial Accounting Standards (SFFAS) No. 4, Managerial Cost Accounting Standards and Concepts. While SFFAS No. 4 does not specify the programs, services, or activities that federal entities should determine costs for, such as travel for vendor-provided training, the standards focus on developing information to help management and Congress understand the costs of operations and make informed decisions. The standards also provide that often a combination of a cost accounting system and cost finding techniques should be used to provide the cost information that is needed to address specific issues that arise. The lack of cost data available from FAA's cost accounting system or through cost analysis techniques to summarize travel to vendor training courses limits FAA's ability to manage the costs of such travel and evaluate all aspects of technician training costs and benefits. Therefore, GAO recommended that FAA consider modifying its 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. While FAA officials concurred in May 2011 that the agency's cost accounting system is not capable of accumulating costs for vendor training and travel-related activities, the officials noted that the agency does capture these expenses in other databases including, the Purchase Request Information System, and, when travel is required, in the Centralized Training Travel Management System or the Integrated Reporting Information System applications. Specifically, in May 2015, FAA officials told us that they are able to compare cost data for both in-house and vendor-provided training, which allowed them to help Congress understand the costs of FAA operations. Further, in June 2015, FAA provided documentation that demonstrated the agency's ability to compare training costs for a specific FAA program. As a result, FAA has the capability to provide information needed manage travel costs, evaluate it and address congressional concerns about the cost of in-house and vendor-provided training and of the travel related to those training activities.

    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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