Saturday, June 18, 2005

The non-issue of retirement

From Anonymous:

LANL employees seem to think that the threat of a thousand or so employees retiring because of the fear of losing some benefits is going to sway the government. Frankly, everyone that I know that does business with LANL believes that its mission could be accomplished with 1/2 the staff that are currently there. People who believe this include former LANL scientists, DOE/NNSA staff, and the subcontractors to LANL who currently perform most of the critical operating functions. LANL has coasted on its once sterling reputation for high quality science and engineering for all too many years. Please, employees, go ahead and retire en-masse so the new M&O (hopefully L-M) can bring in the forces necessary to acheive the culture change necessary.

You arrogant little snot. You work for DOE, don't you?

What value does putting this on the front page bring to the blog? Furious denunciations and verbal head-noddings will vie for the last word and for what?

I've no problem with posts that don't adhere to the party platform but this one is pointless flamebait.
"subcontractors ... who currently perform most of the critical operating

Prove it. What type of "critical functions" are you talking about? I
dare you to give me a list, you little twit. It's put up or shut up
time. Let's see your list of critical functions which only contractors
at LANL can adequately handle.
No, Doug. Leave it up. This guy is obviously not a clueless outsider.
Look at some of the terminology he uses, such as "M&O". This fellow is
either a contractor currently at the lab or someone within the DOE. If
this is how some within these organizations truly feel about LANL, then
we deserve to know about it. The post is ugly, but it should be left
standing for others to see and to form their own opinions. It clearly
goes against the views of others, like current DOE Secretary Bodman.
I debated whether to post this. Ultimately, I felt that this submission in a way captures the essence of what is currently wrong at LANL. The mere fact that there are people out there who hold this point of view should indicate to even the most self-absorbed LANL employee that there are serious problems at LANL which are not being dealt with. I agree with a previous comment: the post is ugly but it is not clueless, and ignoring what this person has to say would not be the right thing to do. I see this submission, and the others like it as a wake-up call.

The orginal poster does express an opinion that is held by many -- that LANL is over staffed, and that the staff whine alot. However, the mission statement is absurd -- "the mission could be accomplished with 1/2 the staff" clearly indicates that the poster has decided that much of the work at los alamos is outside "mission". In fact, los alamos is very successful in programs within NNSA (like non-proliferation) and DoE (like the office of science, etc.) despite the fact that many DoE bureaucrats hate funding los alamos. This is a testiment to the staff and facilities.

The comments that contractors perform all the mission critical work is clearly absurd -- there is no contract work in stewardship, a fraction in weapons engineering, and some in nuclear materials management.

In the end, comments like this don't matter. The new contract will be decided on the basis of the responses to the RFP. In the RFP a broad workscope is called out -- unfortunately, changing to a fee structure and for profit will mean 150 million will come off the top of the "mission" work. This does mean that the mission will have to be accomplished with less staff because no new money is forth coming. Before the LM fans point to Sandia, it should be pointed out that Sandia negotiated an extra supplement to pay for the GRT in the 90s. DoE has vowed never, ever to do that again.

Los Alamos will always be a lightning rod for criticism, including the type of the original poster. This should not result in a defense knee jerk response because that is a no win situation. Focus on the future for LANL. It will no doubt be a bumpy ride in the next year, but many in HQ support the broad LANL mission even as they struggle with decreasing budgets and congresspersons making speeches that are total fiction.
The statement "I debated whether to post this", is telling.
Actually, the part of the submission that I agreed with was "the mission could be accomplished with 1/2 the staff". Our overhead rates are crushing. Why is that? Because we have to bring in one extra dollar for each dollar brought in to do programmatic work because there are so many people on overhead. Why are there so many people on overhead?

Answer that question and you now know were to go to start fixing LANL's problems.
To 9:53, the crushing overhead rates wouldn't offend me so much if they served to take all of the administrative functions off my plate so I could focus on technical work. Instead, it seems like at least half of my overhead dollars go to organizations that spend their time dreaming up new ways to make my job even harder than it already is. For example, why do we insist on multiplying every federal regulation by a factor of pi before implementing at LANL? Just to prove we are "better" at compliance than other agencies?
The LANL overhead is crushing. I think we can agree on that. We can also perhaps agree that the "good ole boy" net and ex managers are part of the overhead problem. But, as things stand today, there is no pressure from DOE on the overhead rates. This is an area where the RFP should encourage competition, but it does not address it.
Perhaps some of the overhead problem will be solved by the retirements? If so, some good will come of this.
I once worked for a private company with budget problems that felt forced to address its overhead, where a number of my friends were supported. They sat each overhead member down and asked; "What do you do?". The response they got was a title and a job description. They repeated; "What do you do?", until they got answers. It is important to know how people actually spend their time, as Drucker suggests in "The Effective Executive". This essential question seems never to be asked at LANL. It should be!!
If this makes LANL staff uncomfortable, that is a sign of the problem. Keeping a detailed log of your time for one week always yields insights. It might also support a meeting with your manager to suggest ways to ease your BS burden.
The first (12:04) response is classic LANL. Seems that LANL has lost touch with the fact that the DOE employs them, by contract with UC. You'd think, from the tone, that UC/LANL employed the DOE.
If, in fact the "arrogant little snot" works for the DOE; the useful thing to do would seem to be an attempt to understand why they hold the opinion that 1/2 the workforce could do the work.
Trashing critics may feel good, but you don't learn much..
The original post is right on! If you are retiring just to show how much we'd miss you, please hurry up and retire so we can all get back to work. We don't need any more self-important, self-absorbing folks at LANL -- we've already got enough people like that(PM & PAD'n'WiPe, just to name a few).
Let's take a look at just how high our overhead really is. The average FTE rate for a LANL TSM is in the neighborhood of $320,000. That's about $154 per hour. How much to you gross on your paycheck? Mine is $57/hour plus change. That means that a customer must pay me my $57/hour, plus an additional $97 per hour just for the privilege of sending the money to LANL.

That's our overhead.
Those who see retirements as the solution LANL's exorbitant overhead rates need to stop and think that one through for a moment. The largest demographic who are retiring in the current exodus are TSMs who bring in, and work on funded programmatic efforts. When they go, there will fewer people to do the work, but the same (approximately) number of overhead-funded staff.

The overhead rates will go up when they're gone.
The only thing that is really ugly about the submission is the assumption made that LANL staff are retiring solely because of benefits issues. The fact is that many are retiring because they are tired of working in a dysfunctional organization where top management is unwilling, and/or incapable of even recognizing the seriousness of the problems at LANL, much less helping to solve them.
This is a sad thread; but needed, because it has aired some key differences of opinions. Unfortunately, it has pitted LANL against LANL. I know many who are retiring and I do NOT know of even one person retiring to spite anyone, "sway the government", invoke sympathy, or saying "you are going to miss me". They have simply made choices for many personal reasons to move on to other opportunities or a much less stressful life. You who eagerly want to push these fine people out have indicted yourselfs with the same "broad-brush" technique used by Nanos...shame on you!

To 6/19/2005 10:56:04 AM, "Perhaps some of the overhead problem will be solved by the retirements?", congratulations you have singularly made one of the most asinine statements, yet, to be posted on the blog. 6/19/2005 11:42:54 AM has correctly stated, "The largest demographic who are retiring in the current exodus are TSMs who bring in, and work on funded programmatic efforts."
If you are borderline on wondering whether to retire or just leave the lab,
read the post yet again. I've had it with people like this poster. Yes,
the cost of doing business at the lab is too high. But the snotty and, yes,
down right hurtful attitude contained in the post is too much. The toxic
atmosphere at Los Alamos is stressing enough without remarks like this one.
I don't blame people for getting out. You'll probably live a longer and
much happier life once you've done it.
Several have commented on overhead here, with good points. Yes, it is more than 100% (even though, to be fair, fringe rates should be included before overhead in addition to gross pay - probably another 20% on that side). Yes, it is worse than simply paying for an administrator/paper pusher for each staff, you are paying for someone who typically consumes YOUR time, rather than relieving you of the burden of administration.

None of this is unique to LANL. I have worked at two other labs in the complex and know many other people at the other labs with exactly the same complaints. In fact, it is clearly not unique to DOE. Look up the Peter Principle and Parkinson's Law. Management in industry is largely about combating these tendencies in large organizations.

Hopefully, someone will take what should be an opportunity to make life better for the staff at DOE labs and save money at the same time (by getting rid of the useless 50-75% of the bureaucrats), but I'm not holding my breath.
To the poster of the original article - I'm waiting. Were is your list of
"critical operations" that only LANL contractors have the capability to
perform? Don't just coast on your original post. Let's see your list!
Signed, a LANL TSM (aka a "Coaster").
I have a friend who worked in industry before coming to LANL and claims that every large engineering firm has a an overhead rate of about 2x salary. Given the extra security requirements and nuclear materials safety requirements, perhaps we are not doing so badly. Does anyone have any relevant statistics?
For one, I'd like to see L/M/UT
sh!t can the poor performers at LANL. This act alone should do away with 1/3 of the workforce.
I don't care if you are a TSM or OS. If you are a discipline problem or poor performer, adios bay-bee!
And which side of the 1/3rd might you be on, poster 4:31 pm? You might be
surprised. Arrogance could also be one of the qualification used to can
some of the staff!
People who seem to be gleefully looking forward to a RIF at LANL are sick.
I was at LANL during the RIF of 95-96. It was horrible! People were
fired and had a very hard time selling their houses. Fear was rampant
throughout the labs. Be very careful what you wish for, as you may
soon get it. And for those who think they are beyond reproach in a RIF
situation, I've got a big surprise for you. RIFs are not always fair.
It is not a given that they will only throw out the bad performers. Anyone
may find their name on a RIF list if the timing of the RIF is ripe.
An earlier comment correctly pointed out that the loaded FTE rate does not completely cover overhead. Once a sponsor has been convinced to send money to LANL, the taxation starts. The program office (which usually had nothing whatsoever to do with bringing the money in) takes their slice. Then there's the division office tax. If the work requires the purchase of computer hardware, BUS skims some off the top for the privilege of providing the service (poorly). There's office space tax. I'm sure I have forgotten some of the other taxes, thankfully.

Finally, after the money is in-house, then the staff are allowed to do ergonomic self assessments with it. And several flavors of security training. Environmental sensitivity training. Diversity training. STOP training. Write LIRs, IWDs.

It is amazing LANL has made it this far.
The overhead rate is not a perfect measure of efficiency or lack thereof. As suggested above, there are ways of 'taxing' besides straight indirect costing. More importantly is, who gets taxed, and what added value do they get for the tax? In principle, you should get a larger benefit by paying the tax (overhead) than you could get just by hiring someone yourself. Some universities and industries are run badly in this regard, but for the most part they do a better job than the national labs.

It's not as prevalent where I've worked, but perhaps subcontracting is a mechanism to dodge the tax where the sponsor sees no value in it?
The original post has a point. Consider that: I am a TSM and for many years my highly paid group leader charged his salary entirely to group overhead. This in the not too distant (pre Nanos) past when groups could set their own tax rate.

In my tenure at Los Alamos, I have observed many excellent hard working scientists supporting with high overhead on their hard earned programs useless TSM and managers.

Is this legal? Does this advance Los Alamos mission? Why is our overhead so large? Is $350,000 a reasonable cost and a justifiable/sustainable use of tax payer dollars to support a scientist that is paid 2.8 times less?
Hey 6:29, have you considered how your group leader spends his/her time? If he/she spends most of his/her time on budgets, finding funding, talking with the program side of the house, etc., it seems to me entirely appropriate that time be charged to overhead.

Or would you rather he/she charged to one or more programs to which he/she contributes little or nothing of substance?

In my opinion, the latter (which does happen) is much more fraudulent than the former.
For sure LANL could function the same with half the staff it currently supports. So many of them are given little or no work to begin with.
People really don't understand overhead from what I can see. I spent a lot of years in industry before I got here. LANL's overhead is about the same as the overhead found in companies such as IBM.

When I worked on DARPA proposals with partners from Watson, the nominal cost of an FTE (1996 dollars) was $300K, for example. My company also had about the same nominal cost.

The problem is that people keep expecting LANL to have the same overhead as a University, which makes no sense. LANL does not have a huge endowment, or cheap grad students, or tuition support. LANL is a corporation, not a university, and corporate overhead rates should apply.
Let's see. How many phase 1, 2 & 3s are we doing? This is the same as the NRC with a stable fleet of reactors, without a reactor order/license application for over two decade, and same bloated staff.
To 08:06:29 AM:

DARPA having a bloated loaded FTE rate I can understand. IBM is a huge, surprisingly disorganized company, and likewise a bloated rate is no surprise. Competive industry, however, have rates more in the $180 - $200 per hour range.
The bottom line in this thread, to me, is that the original poster is entitled to speak his mind and make a posting on this blog. I don't think his statements are "ugly" and should not be published. His statements are definetely no worse than the personal attacks via this blog on various managers and a whole lot of selfish, cry-baby whining I've read here. The negative comments about the original poster (e.g., "arrogant little snot") touched some people's nerves that, deep-down, they worry he may be right. LANL is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the sometimes harsh and unfair environment of the outside world. And, no, I don't work for DOE.

"We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Competive industry, however, have rates more in the $180 - $200 per hour range.

Hmmm.. Time for a math quiz.
$180/hr * 2080 hr/yr = $374.4K /yr for (competitively burdened?) staff.

Looks like it's LANL that's competitive at the low rate of $300K-$350K / yr.
I believe LANL costs are based on an average number of productive hours by series - none of which is 2080 hours as I recall.
As many have said that they need data to draw conclusions about the present and future of LANL, the following current FY demographic data are through 5/31/05.

There have been 357 UC Regular Terminations. The breakdown by series: 165 TSM; 77 SSM; 76 TEC; and 39 AS/GS/OS. These are broken down by reason as: 168 Retirement; 148 Career Advancement; 41 all other reasons.

There have been 583 UC Regular new hires this fiscal year: 98 TSM; 167 SSM; 173 TEC; and 145 AS/GS/OS.

The highest degree educational breakdown among these 583 new-hires is: 15 PhD(2.6%); 3 JD(0.5%); 44 MA/MS(7.5%); 81 BA/BS(13.9%); 26 Associate(4.5%); and 414 None(71.0%).

The current 8584 person LANL UC Regular workforce by highest degree consists of: 1904 PhD, MD, JD, DVM(22.2%); 1619 MA/MS(18.9%); 1884 BA/BS(21.9%); 665 Associate(7.8%); 156 App/Other(1.8%); and 2356 None(27.4%).
4:13 here again.

I stand corrected. The "standard" number of productive hours for a TSM is 1760 per yr, if I recall correctly.

So, reworking the math, one gets (rounding up) $199/hr for a $350K/yr (fully burdened) TSM.

Guess that's too close to the $200/hr threshold to be "competitive" with an industry that cannot duplicate our capabilities.

05:26 posts interesting retirement numbers. thus far, 165 TSM retired and 98 were hired. Net loss of 67 TSM is very small! Also, out of 98 TSM hires only 15 are PhD. Can that be right?

At sandia, they have a title "senior scientist". We could use such a title at Los Alamos to properly recongnize PhD scientists.
The numbers are those posted by HR.
OK. The mass retirement story is a myth.
The mass retirement story is, indeed, a myth. It is a case of "I'll show
them", but the truth is, most of us still need our jobs at LANL. The pay
is good, and the benefits are even better. Those people who were at the
age of 60 years or 30 years of service have left or will be leaving. Some
of them will then come back to the lab as retiree workers. The rest of us
will probably stay on as regular workers. The down-side of all this is that
the probability of an RIF coming sometime in late 2006 or early 2007 has
drastically increased, regardless of whatever sweet words the NNSA may be
telling us.
"Also, out of 98 TSM hires only 15 are PhD. Can that be right?"

Yep. Why hire a bunch of over-paid basic science PhDs when LANL is heading towards being a pit manufacturing site. It is interesting that while around 23% of the current staff hold a PhD, only 3% of the new-hires do. They are clearly trying to bring in more engineers for the new LANL mission.
Would be interesting to see the PhD split between scientists and engineers. There are a lot of PhD engineers at LANL.
LANL already is an engineering laboratory. Engineers do not understand or recognize that other professions exist. They think they can solve absolutely any problem even if they don't have expertise in an area.
To 11:50 -

In order to do cutting edge work in today's science arena you need to be very interdisciplinary, and need scientists, engineers, and non-scientists in some cases to make for well-rounded projects that can pass peer review. LANL does not encourage this sort of thinking which is one reason (aside from psychotic management practices) why the institution is slipping in the quality of its work, gaining outside respect, and losing good staff to academic jobs.
(From an outsider) For what it is worth, I once worked for a DOE/DP consulting firm where the multiplier was 2.1, which I understood to be about the best you can do. More importantly, the key to success is most often productivity, which is something best controlled by Project Managers doling out billable hours to individuals a few days of labor at a time. That results also in a weekly or monthly summary of what each person is actually doing. Perhaps LANL already has that kind of individual profile. The overhead costs (1.1 out of the 2.1) have to be managed by senior managers through various schemes such as part time workers or outsourcing. All that being relatively obvious, I would offer that each individual on the payroll has to manage personal productivity, something that requires some kind of productive mindset that could arguably be viewed as competitive. For example, "No simple task should be left undone more than one day." I also like the practice of having each individual submit a monthly report through (and around) middle managers to the top manager on work accomplished/planned and problems/solutions, something that tends to keep middle managers informed and honest, if done right. Well, I know most LANL folks can come up with better ideas, so I assume you are doing that.
"I also like the practice of having each individual submit a monthly report through (and around) middle managers to the top manager on work..." - 2:53PM poster

Ideally, this practice is healthy. In the part of LANL where I work, such a practice would never be allowed. Middle management (group leaders) would never allow status reports to go to their bosses without first being reviewed by the GLs. The reason? They have an unhealthy belief that bad news (including simple management problems that are easily fixed) should never be communicated upward.

I eagerly await the arrival of real leaders and managers at the lab someday.
Charles R Jones : 6/21/2005 02:53:17 PM" said:

"I also like the practice of having each individual submit a monthly report through (and around) middle managers to the top manager on work accomplished/planned and problems/solutions, something that tends to keep middle managers informed and honest, if done right."

In the old days we never went to that extreme because we did not have to. Each group submitted a monthly, and quarterly summary that went up the chain as far as the Director. We wanted management to know what we were doing, and what we were doing to solve the problems we encountered.

Since we stopped writing these summaries in the 1980s, the Division Office forgot what we do for them, and the new Lab management does not have a clue.

Normally I sign these comments, but this time I won't.
I'm sure your Division Office knows that you do work to generate the tax to support them and their efficient staff, as does LANL Lab Management.
Let's see of the end of May, LANL had 226 more UC Regulars than it did at the beginning of the FY. So, if all 290 of the pending UC Regular retirements go, and there are no other terminations, additional retirements or new hires in June, the Lab will have a net loss of 64 UC Regular employees through the end of June.

I would have to say the evidence at this point does not seem to be supporting the mass retirement/termination hypothesis.

It will be interesting to revisit at the end of June.
6/21/2005 11:50 "Engineers do not understand or recognize that other professions exist. They think they can solve absolutely any problem even if they don't have expertise in an area."

Actually, that sounds like a pretty good description of LANL scientists.
9:41, That's because most of LANL's self-proclaimed scientists are engineers by training. My division managers are engineers and not only are they not aware of any other fields of expertise out there, but they can't manage their overhead to save their lives.
11:07, now that brings up a good question: Will there be more UC Regular employees at LANL at the end of this FY than there were at the beginning of the FY?

If yes, then I hope the money keeps coming from St. Pete...
I don't worry at all about having retirements. Most of those over 50, and certainly those over 60, are not (in general!) those doing the work here. I'm sure there are exceptions, but the majority of those retiring aren't providing $300,000 worth to the taxpayers of this country. What we really need to worry about is early and mid-career people leaving for jobs elsewhere. The best can always go.
To 6/23/2005 04:48:46 PM, "Most of those over 50, and certainly those over 60, are not (in general!) those doing the work here." What a perfectly asinine thing to say! Nice touch! You certainly are perfect!
To 6/23/2005 07:45:03 PM: Yes!
If anyone still believes that the "retirement myth" is only a myth, just check the LANL online bulletin board. Nearly every day in June there's been an announcement for a retirement party for at least one -- sometimes several -- retiring personnel. I attended one yesterday for four people. At this party, I spoke to another attendee who said he is retiring next week, and two others who said they'll leave when the current contract ends. Last night I spoke to a friend who told me she'll also leave when the current contract ends; her husband is retiring now. This is just the first wave. The "big one" has been delayed, from September 05 to (probably) May 06, but just like the eventual California earthquake "big one", it is coming, make no mistake.
LEAVE, GO, RETIRE, open up some better paying positions for the youthful future of LANL
Those that built the bomb were early and mid-career.
To 6/24/2005 10:29:10 AM, your feet are too small; the shoes will swallow you.
The problem of reduced performance from those close to retirement is widely acknowledged in academic and industrial lab environments. 8:57 and 10:22 do not provide any coherent argument as to why LANL might be an exception to this tendency. The 4:48 poster was polite; he/she acknowledged that there exist individual people who do perform at an extremely high level throughout their career. The harsh reaction to this comment is telling; if 8:57 and 10:22 really were one of the exceptions they would recognize the truth of the original statement. If you disagree, please explain why you believe LANL produces an environment that leads to productivity throughout the career for the majority of its research staff.
"... please explain why you believe LANL produces an environment that leads to productivity throughout the career for the majority of its research staff."

I am not one of the posters referred to by 6/26/2005 04:22:54 PM, but I do have an observation to make on this subject. I believe many researchers at Los Alamos remain productive throughout their careers because they love their work.

I also feel that this past year has changed how many of these same researchers feel about LANL and their work. It is probably not possible to underestimate the damage that has been done to LANL in the last 12 months. People who attempt to attribute the high numbers of people currently retiring solely to the risk of reduced benefits as a result of the RFP don't realize that LANL used to be a great place to work, simply because of the work environment.

I don't feel that all the damage done to LANL occurred just in this past year, either. I think the past 15 - 20 years have seen a gradual erosion of the quality of the work environment at our laboratory, abruptly made completely intolerable to many of us in just this past year.

I would like the original poster to meet me in the parking lot at Cheeks in Santa Fe on Saturday night. I have some important confidential information to give to him.
About LANL? I doubt it.
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