NOAA Hiring Freeze: Capabilities Head Down a Slippery Slope

by J. Marshall ShepherdAMS President. The full text was posted earlier today on his blog, Still Here and Thinking.
This week NOAA, the parent agency for the National Weather Service (NWS), announced a hiring freeze at a time when its vacancy rate is already around 10%. I understand that this number is near 20% for the Washington, D.C. area NWS Office. At this point, pause and consider public safety. As we enter the severe weather/tornado season, the Sequester has forced the hand of our NOAA management and possibly jeopardized the American public’s safety, stifled scientific capacity, obliterated morale within NOAA/NWS, and dampened hopes for the next generation of federal meteorological workforce.  Beyond safety, we have increasingly clear evidence that weather is important to our economy, a critical consideration for an agency in the Department of Commerce.
Now to be clear, I know, personally, the senior level managers at NOAA/NWS very well: they will do everything within their power to adjust and mitigate impact. This commentary is really not about them.
Like our dedicated military, border patrol agents, police officers, and firefighters, NOAA employees provide a valuable public service that affects our lives every day, including warnings and alerts. A community would be outraged at cuts to a nearby Fire Station staff, particularly during a rash of arsons. Additionally, NOAA/NWS personnel are increasingly missing as subject matter experts for major Emergency Management training and conferences.
The vibrant and critical private weather enterprise adds value to data, models, and warnings from NWS. I have often joked that NOAA is to the private sector weather enterprise, what the potato farmer is to a company that makes French fries. It is a vital partnership, which includes research and applications from academic partners as well. The AMS Washington Forum will bring together these sectors for a vital meeting next week, including the increasingly important discussion about creation of a U.S. Weather Commission.
I am fearful of what is happening in our community with draconian sequester cuts, challenges to travel/science meeting attendance and other stresses on science/R&D support within NOAA, including journal publications, fees, etc. If you couple this with looming concerns about weather satellite gaps, computing capacity to support advanced modeling, and employee morale, we are slipping down a slippery slope of “eroding” the U.S. federal weather enterprise. Since industry, academia, and federal agencies work closely together, these effects will ripple throughout the broader community.
The public may take for granted a tornado warning based on Doppler radar or a hurricane forecast based on satellite information. Likewise, the public probably just assumes that they will have 5-9 day warning for storms like Sandy; 15-60 minutes lead time for tornadic storms approaching their home; weather data for safe air travel; or reliable information to avoid hazardous weather threatening military missions. However, these capabilities can and will degrade if we cut weather balloon launches, cut investments in the latest computers for modeling, reduce radar maintenance, delay satellite launches, or shatter employee morale. We are accustomed to progress and innovation, but I fear capabilities will regress instead, jeopardizing our lives, property, and security. And I have not even spoken about the challenges that a changing climate adds to the weather mix.
At my university, I see young, vibrant, and talented students everyday who embody the next generation weather enterprise. They are taking notice of what is happening, and I believe this seriously jeopardizes our future workforce.
As we enter the active spring tornado season, let’s hope the sequester season ends, before the hurricane season begins.

2 thoughts on “NOAA Hiring Freeze: Capabilities Head Down a Slippery Slope”

  1. No disrespect by this comment intended…. but Mr President the government hasn’t done anything for us college students since it turned loans and aid away from the private sector. I am a Senior undergraduate and a member since 2010. I understand your doing your duty by towing the governments line of SEQUESTER BAD but 2 cents on the dollar isn’t a drop in the bucket for this deficit spending the current senate and executive branch have continued. I would rather us show an example and not let a small amount of political posturing stop our personal drive for advancing Meteorological science, but upon reading this article I see that won’t be the case. I would go as far to say as our leader you should do all in your power to improve moral, and not rely on the government when plenty of private companies are ready to help all you have to do is come out of the forest to see the trees if i might use an analogy.

  2. I have some views on both sides of this subject here, and views that date back to 1996.
    I have friends and relatives that are hard workers in NOAA and the DoD that are going through the sequester. And let me tell you, their work isn’t easy and should be the last thing the government cuts. If anything, the problems are with the higher ups in the organizations and not necessarily with those who do the normal day-to-day work.
    But that being said, not all of the private industry is at the moment doing all it should either (and not just because I am currently looking for work after being let go). You have more than a few companies, especially ones that deal with utilities and more industrial clients, that have forecasters that “rip and read” the mos products and models and even NWS products at times instead of coming up with their own forecasts using the skills they picked up in college (or should have picked up). The main reason for the “rip and read” mentality: efficiency over-rules accuracy. I have had supervisors say “just get the forecast out, we don’t care if it’s really right”, or “just tie the NWS and we’re ok”. And when someone like me brings up that forecasts are busting left and right, over and over again, in the same geographic areas and situations, and I try to show them this as well as show them through my experience how to correct this, I have been brushed off more than a few times as borderline crazy because their mentality is “get the forecast out” not “get the correct forecast out”.
    As for the future workforce, President Shepherd, let’s put it this way: they are in trouble, worse than most academic fields. Between the NWS cutbacks, the private sector growing but nowhere near enough to compensate, and how that imbalance between graduates and jobs available has grown since the mid 90’s, I’m not sure how many grads will not have more and more problems financially given there is way too high a supply and not enough demand to justify the tuition costs (compared to actual salaries). I had to get my start in Canada as a result in the mid to late 90’s. And after I was forced to quit that job to protect my US citizenship in the mid 2000’s (despite an otherwise clean and competent record), you wouldn’t believe how many US meteorology employers discounted that forecasting experience in Canada unjustly, especially AMS member companies, to the point they considered me unemployable because of it. Your students are going to have a very tough road ahead unless someone changes the supply/demand equation within meteorology (preferably with more jobs, not the other way).
    And if you have a spot available in that US Weather Commission for actual experienced non-management non-professorial meteorologist to take part, I would gladly throw my hat into the ring to be nominated for that spot so that the field of meteorology can have input of one of the “on the ground workers” in how to guide our field in the future.

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