Finding and Developing an Elite Workforce - How NASA Does It

I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing as an eight year-old kid. That event created such a stir that virtually everyone I knew wanted to become an astronaut. Sadly, gaining entrée into that elite cadre was beyond the ability of most of us. These days, the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) still has their pick of the brightest, most technologically adept, not to mention bravest, employees in the country if not the world.

It seems likely that NASA could teach any enterprise a thing or two about developing an elite workforce. Here’s how NASA does it with some additional thoughts:

Candidate Selection

Mundanely enough, the search for astronauts begins with a job description. Unfortunately, only those with military flying experience, fluency in Russian and an M.D. or Ph.D., or both can qualify. Obviously, the process is highly selective although a schoolteacher or two has made it through and been chosen as an astronaut. The point is that they know what they want and actively search for it in their candidates.

With these facts in mind, the task of recruiting the best people may seem as daunting as finding Atlantis, but the discovery of that one perfect candidate amongst dozens or hundreds of candidates is the ultimate goal of the hiring process. Ensuring that every applicant goes through the entire process from pre-hire tests through background checks to interviews is essential for finding the most ideal employee.

Orientation & Training
NASA has the luxury of a two-year orientation period during which the new hires or astronaut candidates (ASCANs) undergo exhaustive physical and psychological tests. Over this time period, the ASCANs are introduced to a mockup of their working environment, rigorously trained in their specific duties and also cross trained in at least one other specialty. The orientation and training of their workforce is fundamental to the success of the individual NASA missions and to their overall goal.

Only the training of medical schools or the resources of a few select companies can be considered a serious challenger to the methods of NASA. In fact, almost no company can expend the resources that NASA does. However, the new hires of most companies do not require the extensive training that those at NASA do. A reasonable expenditure on the on-boarding and training of new hires will reap rich returns in terms of employee morale, customer service and overall profitability.  NASA would never ignore it nor should your company.

Ongoing Management
As recent events have shown, NASA is not perfect in its selection of astronaut candidates. Still, their continual evaluation of their staff allows them to proactively manage the ASCANs and eliminate those who do not exhibit the “right stuff.” The key to this process is a formalized system of evaluations that let the employee and the company to know if expectations are being met.

Any organization benefits from the standardization and formalization of its processes. In extraordinary circumstances, any manager can thereby implement the company policy. This fact insulates the company from exposure to outside liability and ensures the safety of their employees. NASA is intimately aware of these benefits and counts on them in the most unusual of situations.

The Right Stuff

One doesn’t need a degree from Cornell or Stanford to realize that developing an elite workforce, while time-consuming, is ultimately a rewarding endeavor for any business. Nevertheless, many small business owners are simply too busy to devote themselves to the vitally important task of managing the human resource aspects of their business. In these cases, the utilization of an
HRIS or the engagement of a PEO is the prudent and business savvy thing to do.

An HRIS can automate the more routine parts of the process so that that the owner and his managers can concentrate on the more important aspects of HR and free up their time in general. A PEO can relieve a small business of essentially every HR function while still leaving the owner in control. Take a page from one of the most successful organizations in history. NASA has always been a highly skilled team of scientists and engineers but even they knew when to look for help when finding and managing their elite workforce.

About the Author
Carolyn Sokol is a founder of which helps match small businesses with the right PEO company for their unique business needs. Her background is in marketing and communications,
HR Outsourcing, employee education and training, development of policies and procedures and the ongoing delivery of outstanding customer service.