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  • Writer's pictureSherry

November 2012 S. Benjamins & Co Newsletter: Unique Culture at JPL – On a Mission

It could not be a better time to highlight our friends at JPL and their success. A successful landing of Curiosity, incredible Mars photos, a discovery of ancient streams (just last week) and even a song dedicated by Black Eyed Peas member,, which played on the red planet. While the Mars successes of JPL continue to be anxiously watched and celebrated, there are great take-aways for all of us leading a people function. I had the pleasure of speaking with our client and friends at JPL: Richard Roessler, Deputy Director for HR and Cozette Hart, who leads the entire Human Resource function as Director for HR at the Pasadena headquarters. We wanted to share this insider view.

JPL has been in the global spotlight given the popularly of the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in 2004 and again in 2012 with the follow on coverage of the Mars traveler, Curiosity. JPL employs approximately 5,000 employees, roughly divided into 3,500 engineers, 500 scientists and 1,000 business support personnel. On the MSL Curiosity mission alone it is estimated that over 7000 people in thirty-two states worked on some facet of the Mars mission. These are the types of STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) jobs that attract top talent and are critical to keep our competitiveness as a nation. In the last 15 years, JPL has successfully landed 5 out of 6 missions to Mars, compared to a historical record of 50% for all countries attempting this feat.

Sherry Benjamins: What makes JPL such a unique work environment?

Richard Roessler & Cozette Hart: JPL is known for its end to end spacecraft development. It’s quite rare for one company to be able to do the full scope of this type of work which attracts talent from top rated universities and companies. Candidates express great interest in JPL based on our reputation, the historical success we achieved on our missions and because of the mission itself. We have a very high level of employee engagement, with 93% of all employees stating they are proud to work at JPL in our latest engagement survey. However, there are two challenges in attracting talent. The first concern – one that is beyond our control - is regarding the uncertainty of federal funding for space programs. It is an environment in which we must always manage, even though we have a good track record of ultimately securing the funding we need for our space exploration programs. Second, there is growing competition across all technical companies and entrepreneurial ventures for the shortage of talent. We all are looking for the best scientific and engineering minds across the globe. The good news is that JPL holds the “national trust” in EDL – Entry into another planet’s atmosphere, Descent through that planet’s atmosphere and Landing on the surface” of that planet, particularly Mars. We have honed our capability in this area of space exploration and we rely on the enthusiasm and support of the American public to fund the exciting Mars exploration missions involving robotic orbiters, landers, and rovers. Ultimately, there could be a day when humans land on Mars!

How is the highly sought after talent developed when the skills are so scarce and specialized?

There is definitely a concern about the future supply of engineers and scientists in this country; many companies are competing for this dwindling talent pool. The pipeline is shrinking and we have to compete against general industry as well as the high tech companies in the Silicon Valley. The result is a scarcity of specific skills, making acquiring talent highly competitive and an even more important issue to address now.

At JPL, we have developed an early career hiring program that exposes entry level engineers to significant projects upon employment and continuously throughout their career. We have an in-house training program where engineers get to be on project teams to build hardware and scientific instruments to be put on one of our missions. It provides hands on exposure to managing a space flight project from design to build and gives employees exposure to the types of positions we have at the Lab. They get to experience those positions on actual projects and not theoretical scenarios or classroom training only. The goal for 2013 is to hire 150 university recruits as early career professionals. This is a statistic that reflects a serious commitment to developing talent.

What has been the key to your success in retaining talent for long term programs like Curiosity?

We are fortunate in having very low turnover. We have an intentional investment strategy in talent. Our scientists and engineers know they are respected, appreciated and valued. This emerges in many forms. For example, consider the national identity of JPL that captures the hearts and minds of Americans. It’s a powerful and compelling reason to join. The Curiosity team is a 24-7 project that demands a lot from its members, but they know they are making a difference. The JPL culture is all about innovation and preserving an environment of entrepreneurial thinking within a federally funded government influenced bureaucracy. We strive to find a productive balance between the flexibility needed for innovation and complying with all the regulations and oversight required of a government contractor. It tests everyone, but how many organizations can say they have a group of employees living on Mars time?

We also capture the commitment of our talent by sponsoring “seed money” for researchers to come up with ideas for new missions and technologies that can be integrated into future missions. Our funding of innovation is not unlike R&D programs in industry, where we hope to develop a pipeline of ideas to continue to explore space in new and creative ways, ever mindful of using taxpayer dollars.

Given that JPL values innovation, how is this mirrored in HR?

We are truly a learning organization. We want our HR professionals to be leading edge, to stay abreast of industry best practices and tailor programs to meet the needs of our unique workforce. We provide our team members stretch assignments, rotations to various disciplines, and opportunities for mentoring with senior leaders. We are small enough to be agile and nimble in the way we support our customers and in the structure itself. We continually tweak the organization to meet the needs of JPL and provide new challenges and professional development for the HR team in the process.

How do you define your culture today?

We are known for transparency, freedom to voice opinions, bringing in the best and appreciating and supporting a work-life balance. Most importantly, we build and foster long-term relationships with talent. We have less than 5% voluntary turnover and many of those who leave JPL, choose to return. We welcome ‘boomerang’ employees who have left us for a while to gain experience in industry, academia or as entrepreneurs, but ultimately they miss the work, the people and the JPL mission.

  1.    Our Wellness Initiative, which was just launched, focuses on maintaining a healthy balance for our employees. It supports doing great work, while having fun and valuing family. Our employees’ families are an extension of JPL and their support is key to JPL’s success. In the final year of a mission launch, the hours, the pressure and the stress can become very high. We have a Human Factors Program in conjunction with Occupational Health and Safety that attunes managers and fellow workers to be mindful of the stress levels of our project teams and to seek help when there may be imbalance and escalated stress.

  2.  People leadership skills are also an important element to our success. We offer leadership develop opportunities and provide a variety of mentoring programs including formal mentoring, pairing mentees with specific mentors to meet a stated goal for development, as well as allowing retirees the opportunity to share their extensive knowledge with high potential and less experienced employees. We also mentor a small pool of talent to become JPL fellows – the highest career level of an individual contributor – put in place to recognize technical talent as being just as important as people leadership.

How do the multi-generations work together in your culture?

JPL will soon celebrate its 76th birthday. We have engineers and scientists who were pioneers in the space program, working beside recent university graduates. We acknowledge and honor four generations working here at JPL. We try to be sensitive to the different needs of our employees by generation and have the flexibility in our offerings that are relevant to each generation, such as offering expanded access to technology, flexible schedules for work-life balance, or providing assistance to our employees with elder care. JPL will approve extended leaves, sabbaticals and learning experiences away from the company if it enhances employees’ ability to contribute in the long term. The beauty of JPL is that such a highly sophisticated and intellectual workforce requires all of us to be at the top of our game. Projects span years and we must support the development of being in it for the long run.

You may not have a Mars program to galvanize the troops, but I am certain you have mission critical initiatives that offer your talent great hands-on experiences. Please let us know about your learning and leading practices that excite your employees. Check out our blog at

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