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 parochial interests.

LXB: Is this a reflection of the nature of the nuclear industry?

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 action?

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 back."

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 classroom learning?

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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 their degrees?

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 shortage?"

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 becoming heretics.

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 it.

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 demonstrate value?

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.