Sandia LabNews

Nuclear weapons SBU supports aggressive hiring to replace essential people

A big change from last year’s DOE budget reallocation uncertainties

A year after the grim early-morning budget-shortfall meetings of January 2000, Senior VP Tom Hunter (9000) says he’s breathing much easier when he looks over the spreadsheets for Sandia’s nuclear weapons groups this January. Reallocation of funding within DOE in late1999 left Sandia — as well as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore — scrambling well into 2000to avoid staff reductions and keep the vital national security work on track. For Sandia, the problem was cobbling together a plan to keep everything functioning with about $50 million less than originally budgeted — about $35 million of which had been destined for the Labs’ nuclear weapons work.

But, says Tom, “We have a brighter picture today than we have had in the most recent past. We have real growth in the budget in fiscal year 01.”That was not the case at the beginning of planning for FY01, however. Initial planning had the budget declining in total dollars from the previous year, and FY00 had been less than FY99.“But we worked with DOE and they were supported by Congress, so we were able to get FY00back near the level where it had been in ’99,” he says. “That allowed us to avoid any workforce impacts at the laboratory during Fiscal Year 00.”

And the FY01 budget appropriation is greater than the previous year and includes not only the final design money for MESA (Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Applications) as a construction item, but also funding to keep work in key areas like pulsed power and microelectronics on-course.The ’01 budget includes about $60 million more than the ’00 version, he says. That increase led to changes in thinking about how to hire for thin areas of the Laboratories supporting the Nuclear Weapons Strategic Business Unit (NWSBU), much of which he outlined in a standing-room-only Steve Schiff Auditorium presentation in November about the unit’s work. The presentation was SRO also at Sandia/ California and a couple of other Sandia/New Mexico sites via video link.

The bottom line, Tom said in a subsequent LabNews interview, is that “we need to be aggressive about adding to the work force. The current on-role [workforce] is well below the average we need for this year. Last year we didn’t hire so we had attrition and we let our workforce comedown to a level that if we just sustained it, would not allow us to do the work. What we need —and what we can afford — is higher than we have had in the last year or so, and so we can afford more people.”But, reminded by last year’s struggle to keep everybody working and meet deliverable requirements, Tom is sensitive to political implications and, therefore, circumspect about discussing bud-get needs.

“We have to be sure we don’t present to the Department of Energy or to the Congress an unbalanced view of where we really are, with respect to the budget,” he cautions. “We’re in pretty good shape. But there are things we still need support for that we don’t have and it would be wrong to present a message that everything is fine and everything we have to have to fulfill our role in the weapons program is, in fact, available because this is not true.”

Workforce ‘for the future’

He did the November presentation, he says,because he and members of his staff thought there had not been sufficient communication about the evolution and the good state of health of the nuclear weapons program. That was leading managers, he believed, to equivocate, leaving them without the confidence “to go out and help us hire a workforce for the future.” Dave Larson (9750), Tom’s chief of staff,echoed that concern. “People say the money’s at the laboratory, but they spend huge amounts of their time tracking it down, finding out where it is, and keeping their staff informed about it,” he says. “But we’ve got work to do; we don’t want large numbers of people investing a lot of time tracking money.”

The NWSBU has made substantial changes to the budget allocation process that should greatly reduce the need for managers to“hunt” for their funding this year.People are the key to the Labs’ future, Tom says, and the current budget allows the NWSBU to afford 60 to 80 people more than last year. And continuing Dave’s point, he says, “We want our managers and staff working on delivering products, supporting our customers, and doing science and engineering. So the whole idea is that time should be spent on real work, not on managing budgets across the whole laboratory.”Agreeing with Dave that the nuclear weapons program is losing about 250 people a year, Tom says, “I don’t want to keep repeating that we’re in such great shape, but the fact is that affordability is not our problem.”

Critical skills goals

There are clear goals in critical skill areas across the nuclear weapons program, he says, and the whole point of his presentation was to point out that people should stop worrying about specific detailed individual requisitions and think,instead, about critical skills and the best people who can be hired.“To fill those skills in general,” says Tom,“there’s a big change in philosophy. We aren’t going to go out and find somebody for Organization 5211 who does a certain thing. Instead, we’re going to hire for critical skills, we’re going to bring that person to the laboratory, and only then are we going to worry about exactly where that new person fits. That’s an enormous change.”

Then, reflecting a moment amid the piles of reports of various sizes on the long conference table and scattered elsewhere around his office, and almost as if he’s thinking out loud, he says, “It’s really because we didn’t hire last year; that’s why we’re in this situation — because we dipped so low. We’ve got to build back up right where we were last year, on the average, and the arithmetic is very simple.“We kept saying, ‘Let’s don’t go back down so much we have to build back up,’ but sure enough, that’s what we did.