The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent
agency that regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other
uses of nuclear materials through licensing, inspection, and
enforcement of its requirements. The NRC ranked no. 1 in Best
Places to Work in the Federal Government, a program produced by the
Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute
for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. Best Places to Work
draws on responses from more than 221,000 civil servants to produce
detailed rankings of employee engagement across 283 federal
agencies and subcomponents.
James McDermott, chief human capital officer for the NRC, provides
overall leadership and management of agency human capital planning,
policy, and program development. He assists and advises NRC
management in the planning and implementation of human capital
programs - and training and development play a significant role
Learning Executive Briefing: Training and
development is one of the categories rated in the Best Places to
Work in Federal Government. What are you doing that's different
from other organizations?
McDermott: We give training a high priority - and
fund it robustly. Take for example our flagship technical training
programs that prepare our inspectors and technical reviewers. They
are the bedrock of our ability to protect the public and the
environment. The agency prizes the technical reputation that its
training and recruitment programs generate. They are key to
supporting public confidence in our safety and security work.
Senior management - from the chairman and commissioners to
immediate supervisors - recognizes the value of training and
development and is committed to sustaining it. Our managers, quite
simply, vote for training and development by providing their people
time for it.
Another key factor is the involvement of our Executive Resources
Board, led by our executive director for operations (our chief
operating officer), and comprised of the agency's most senior
managers, that looks into HR issues, staffing, recruiting,
training, and so on. Most federal organizations have these boards;
they meet periodically, perhaps quarterly, NRC's Executive
Resources Board meets every Friday afternoon. The members delve
into specific talent management issues, and make collegial
decisions that tend to serve the good of the agency rather than
LXB: Is this a reflection of the nature of the
McDermott: The hands-on aspect is reflective of
the nature of nuclear safety and security, if not of the industry.
The mission, protecting people and the environment, motivates our
people to hone their skill sets - technical, communication,
leadership, management, and so forth. The mission is a powerful
driver for our people. They are personally committed to gaining the
skills that will help them serve safety and security well.
Support for training has been a feature of our culture since the
beginning of the agency in 1975. It's second nature for our
managers, many of whom grew up in the agency, to prize training.
For one thing, they experienced a lot of it before they came into
their management positions. They know that training is what makes
us as an organization - as a federal agency - effective.
The nuclear industry supports this culture, literally. We pay for
training, and almost everything else, through fees collected from
the licensees we regulate. And the companies we charge - nuclear
power and nuclear materials entities - tend to agree that the more
educated and efficient the NRC is, the better off it will be. They
rely on us to be smart.
LXB: How does the culture manifest itself in
McDermott: Day to day, the most visible evidence
of this culture is managers' willingness to pay the price. They pay
by releasing their employees, whose efforts they need everyday, for
training courses and developmental assignments. By their actions,
managers say, "I understand that you need to have this development
experience for your good and the good of the company. So we'll suck
it up while you go and do the developmental work you need to do,
and we'll find a way to get your regular job done until you get
LXB: How does the NRC assess and determine which
employees receive training, as well as what sort of training they
will receive? Is it HR or the managers?
McDermott: It's a three-party endeavor that we
call Strategic Workforce Planning, which of course is supported by
a computer system. There are three players in this game: the
employee, the line manager (at several different levels), and the
HR training manager.
One facet of the system is gauging the supply side. Every year we
ask employees to update their profile in a skills database. For a
fairly exhaustive list of mission critical skills, the system asks,
"Do you have general knowledge in this area? Are you good at this?
Are you an expert?" Managers review the employee's self-assessment
and agree, or flag the response as something that needs a
conversation. The skills in question range, for example, from
general knowledge of nuclear theory to a specific skill, such as
nondestructive examination of welds.
The demand side, the list of mission critical skills, is
periodically refreshed by senior management review. Then we compare
the two sides, identify the skill gaps, and develop gap closure
strategies. The strategy may be a recruitment effort, or individual
development plans to build the needed skills within the staff.
The system can address the unexpected. For example, after
Chernobyl, we queried the system looking for workers who spoke
Russian and had the right technical and regulatory skills to put on
a task force. We found them, and they dug in to figure out how they
could help the people there.
LXB: Many organizations struggle with how to take
advantage of this sort of system. How do you make it work?
McDermott: We struggle also. The system is a work
in progress that we keep refining. One challenge is identifying the
skills you want to enter into the system. That takes a lot of time,
and you're never done. You think you have it right, but there's
always something that needs updating.
Occasionally, we have to scrub portions of the list. We go out at
different levels - senior managers, middle managers, and immediate
supervisors - and ask what skills are needed to get the work done
in their office. Typically, the lists vary from group to group, and
even the lists within a group differ from manager to supervisor. We
find that supervisors think about projects just over the horizon -
next week, next month. Senior managers are looking at skills longer
down stream - three to five years. The different outlooks aren't
wrong; they're just different perspectives, and all of them are
valuable in developing training programs.
LXB: What do you with these lists and assessments
once they're completed and compiled?
McDermott: This is where our training and
development specialists get into the picture. They validate data
and make determinations about particular performance issues. For
example, is this something the NRC can handle in-house? Are these
skills needed immediately, or is just-in-time learning a better
fit? Is this skill or information better suited to on-line or
The training and development function also looks at whether the
desired skills are something which the NRC should support with
specifically focused fellowships and scholarships. Some people or
positions might require higher level degrees. We try to have a
flexible and multi-faceted approach to learning, and we recognize
that the NRC might not be the source for learning for every need.
LXB: Does the NRC assist employees in gaining
McDermott: Absolutely. We have money set aside for
fellowships and scholarships. For example, if we need an additional
expert in digital instrumentation and control, we may send an
employee for a master's degree or a PhD. If the NRC helps the
employee get a degree, or PhD, he is expected to work for us for
some specified period of time.
By the way, the NRC's generous training and education programs,
including the scholarships and degree programs, are a major
recruitment and retention tool, and a big factor in our rating as a
best place to work.
LXB: What are some examples of how the NRC makes
its people smart?
McDermott: When possible we try to balance
training with real work. We recognize that the most important
development, especially for new people, is on the job training. So
we work hard to sustain the quality of that training by investing
heavily in supervisory and management training.
We have an intensive two-year training program for entry-level
scientists and engineer. A key piece of that is our Technical
Training Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The institute has
four rooms that simulate full-scale nuclear power plant control
rooms, one for each of the major nuclear power reactor vendors.
It's an expensive operation, but it's worth it to have future
inspectors and reviewers learn - and make mistakes - in a simulated
environment that mirrors the actual plant.
We do more than just do technical training. For example, the
inspectors that NRC stations at each power plant throughout the
United States are not only expected to inspect the plant, but also
communicate with the local public about nuclear power. This
activity requires fairly sophisticated communication skills. Some
people are born communicators, most of us, including - some would
say especially - engineers and scientists are not. But we and they
can learn, for example, not go into a middle school classroom and
say that the risk of an accident is only 10 to the minus six. The
NRC owes it to both the inspectors (our ambassadors) and the public
to train them, and to talk plainly about nuclear power and what the
NRC does without using the technical jargon and acronyms that are
the lingua franca within the agency.
LXB: How are you preparing for the "looming skill
McDermott: The NRC has hired 800 people in that
past two years - and they all need training. Some of them need it
less than others. Last year, half of the more than 400 people we
hired were over the age of 40. These are experienced professionals,
often from the nuclear industry, who bring a wealth of valuable
experiential knowledge relevant to NRC's mission. In fact, I'm
hoping that in some cases we can reverse roles. There may be things
they could teach us that we need to learn from them.
To hire these people and keep them, the NRC needs to be flexible.
The OPM [Office of Personnel Management] has a program it calls
Career Patterns, which takes a one-size-does-not-fit-all approach.
Basically, not everyone is expected to have a career as a
full-time, permanent, 30-year employee in the federal service. That
just isn't going to happen anymore.
We're trying to take a holistic view. For some jobs, people can
work from home in the middle of night. It doesn't matter as long as
they get the work done. There was a time when this would be branded
organizational heresy, but it seems that more and more people are
As a result, we're in the process of rethinking some of our
training; we need a better blend of training and work experiences.
We're betting that if we're flexible with our work arrangements and
if move some of our people - especially Gen Xers - around within
the organization, we'll be able to meet our needs and give them the
growth and development opportunities they crave, and they'll stay
with us for a while.
LXB: What do you mean by "move people around?"
McDermott: Two things. First, we believe in
developmental assignments that we call "rotational details." They
are often a part of an employee's individual development plan, and
always a part of our structured leadership and executive
development programs. Either the employee or the employee's manager
can suggest this initiative; usually it's a joint suggestion.
Often, the temporary absence of one employee becomes a rotational
opportunity for another. The rotation usually lasts 90 days or so;
sometimes longer. It is a tribute to NRC managers' commitment to
training and development through rotational assignments that, as we
say, the loser pays. The manager who loses the employee for a
period of time continues to bear the employee's salary and related
expenses because he or she sees the employee's development as worth
The second thing we mean by "moving people around" is our practice
of encouraging and facilitating permanent inter-organizational
moves. This practice invariably re-energizes individuals, and adds
to NRC's talent bench strength. More than that, I have watched, as
this strategy has grown over the years, how this movement of people
has broken down silos and promoted understanding of, and respect
for, the contribution that every subordinate organization makes to
the success of NRC's mission. We use - even insist on - this
approach at the senior executive level. It's understood in our
succession planning strategy that an executive is not going to move
straight up the ladder in a single organization. He will need
experience in at least two or three different arms of the
organization. More important, we find that rotational details
increase the NRC's bench strength.
LXB: Other than being ranked No. 1 in Great Places
to Work in the Federal Government, how are you expected to
McDermott: We do the traditional tracking and
surveys to assess skills and take the pulse of our organization. We
mine that information, but we make great efforts to avoid
paralyzing ourselves with numbers. Sometimes you can get so caught
up in tracking numbers, you stop doing everything else.
Mainly, we try to focus on looking for processes that are broken.
For example, a recent pulse check uncovered that employees thought
the agency had too little regard for their personal safety. This
perception came as a surprise to management. We, after all, are a
safety and security organization - it's our mission, for goodness'
sake. After looking at other data, it became clear that it was a
communications problem. Another example is a recent EEO session in
which we used an outside provider. The immediate feedback said that
the program was awful. Within days we informed folks that we knew
it was a bad course and we would revamp it. Not all news is going
to be good, but if you recognize mistakes and make prompt and
visible efforts to fix them, people will support you.
Finally, we look at retention. Are our people staying and are they
happy? We believe that a good work life is what our people need and
respond to, so we try to give that to them. We find that a large
part of keeping workers engaged is providing them the kinds of
degree programs, job rotations, and traditional training and
development experiences I've mentioned above. That's almost as
powerful as constantly and consistently engaging their commitment
to the mission: protecting people and the environment.