by Ronald Khol, Editor
The editorial in our July 10, 2003 issue talked about blatant age discrimination at NASA. We received a lot of mail in response, and it is so revealing about discrimination throughout industry it deserves its own column. Here is the best of it, some of which you may have already read in Point & Counterpoint.
-I worked for NASA in the 1990s during the Clinton years when the agency became mainly a jobs program for women and minorities. There was more emphasis on making NASA look like America than in accomplishing anything. Service contracts were taken away from competent firms and placed with set-aside firms owned by minorities. Whenever we bought anything, we had to spend time looking for a minority-owned business to place an order, even if it were at double the price. I quit when my supervisor told me I would never be promoted to management because I was a white guy.
-I have a degree in electronic engineering and am a contractor serving as lead engineer supervising a team of contractor and NASA engineers. All my subordinates are under 26 years old and don't know enough to be dangerous. The NASA engineers are a lazy lot, yet it is difficult for NASA employees to get laid off or fired. By the way, an example of kids doing work over their heads was the analysis of foam damage before the loss of the Shuttle.
-What you wrote about was the policy of the former head of NASA, who told a workforce meeting at the Johnson Space Center that NASA was "too male, too pale, too stale." (His exact words, later edited out of a video transcript of the meeting.) Your observations and concerns are very well placed, and aside from the Shuttle disaster, there was the 1999 Mars debacle. Four spacecraft were lost because a young, cheap, inexperienced, and loosely supervised team made classic mistakes in judgment.
-The NASA workforce has unfortunately become a microcosm of the entire technically challenged American population. I'm a seasoned engineer who has watched this development with despair. Back in 1994, one of the managers in the Space Station project challenged contractor Boeing to lower payroll costs 5% per year by hiring young engineers at lower salaries.
-With regard to age discrimination at NASA, what else is new? I work in the private sector and during 30 years worked my way up in design engineering, eventually becoming chief engineer and serving in that capacity for five years before being laid off. The owner admitted that a good part of my being let go was that my wife and I were both 51 years old and causing the firm to pay higher premiums for health insurance.
-Age discrimination is not just a problem with NASA but is nationwide. The only middle-aged engineers I see being hired are contract workers.
-You could have substituted the name of my employer for NASA in your column. Our female former chief information officer told us there would be no more "over-50, white-male thinking" in our information-technology department.
-In my private-sector job, I once was given the assignment of recruiting a chemical engineer. I was told I could interview anyone but that I would have to hire a black female. The company was under pressure to change its workforce so that it "looked like America." I was forced to turn down many excellent candidates because they didn't fit the color-gender requirement.
-You had the courage to say in public what my circle of colleagues has been saying privately for years. The automotive business has long been following the same abysmal path. Ford specifically made a point of bringing youth and diversity into the business, and look where it is today. My company is going in the same direction despite the fact that we have to give more and more technical support to the technically destitute engineering staffs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler.
-- Ronald Khol, Editor