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: When we confirm what actions the agency 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 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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency 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: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency 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 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

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency 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 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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