LANL Director Talks To RCLC About Jobs, Infrastructure, Safety, External Partnerships

IMG_2919Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Dr. Thom Mason, center, attends Friday’s Regional Coalition of LANL Communities meeting in Espanola along with Stephen Hoffman, Deputy Manager for DOE’s Environmental Management Field Office, left, and Patrick Woehrle of the LANL Office of Government Affairs and Protocol. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

IMG_2927 (3)Frazer Lockhart, N3B’s regulatory and stakeholder interface manager,  far left, chats with Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives and Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz. Photo by Maire O’Neill/

IMG_2923 (1).jpgLos Alamos National Laboratory Director Dr. Thom Mason addresses Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board members, from left, Santa Fe City Councilor Peter Ives, Los Alamos County Councilor David Izraelevitz and Rio Arriba County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo. Present by phone were Espanola Mayor Javier Sanchez, Santa Fe County Commissioner Henry Roybal and Taos City Councilor Darien Fernandez. Photo by Maire O’Neill/


Los Alamos National Laboratory had some 1,400 open positions as of last Thursday and has been hiring at a rate of about 1,000 people a year for the past couple of years, LANL Director Dr. Thom Mason told members of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities board meeting Friday afternoon in Espanola.

“Based on the workload we see and the missions we support, that’s probably going to continue,” Mason said.

“We’re starting to chart our path forward and this takes several forms. We’ve been thinking about what our Laboratory agenda is, what are the priorities that we’re trying to accomplish. More relevant probably for the broader community and this group is how we as an institution intersect with the surrounding communities. We are part of a really tremendous ecosystem of communities and people who support all we have done,” he said.

He said someone like him and some of his colleagues who came from other places, maybe looked at it with a different perspective in terms of what they can do to help facilitate some of the pretty ambitious plans they have to help the Laboratory to grow and prosper. He said in some ways this is very simple stuff such as cell towers.

“It’s a large, diverse site. It’s difficult to communicate across. We have activities going on that are well-separated and not very good cell phone communication so we’re working hard with some of our partners in the business community to try and improve that. I think that will have broader ramifications as well. Anyone headed up to the ski hill or the Valles Caldera will benefit from that improved coverage as well,” Mason said.

He said Triad is also looking at some of the infrastructure at the Lab and trying to align where they’re heading with the mission and what that means in terms of facilities and also transportation. He said the number of open positions is roughly half replacement employees for retirements which is normal demographics and the other half is because the Lab is growing.

“It’s a scary world out there and planning the science and technology solutions to secure our nation and defend proliferation is enjoying support politically and so as a result we’re growing. And that means we’re putting stress onto the surrounding communities in terms of demand for housing, in terms of transportation. You only have to try to drive up the hill at the wrong time of day to realize that, particularly in the summer when you can also add to that mix another 1,700 students. So we’re trying to understand  what does that mean long-term so that we can kind of communicate that to the broad community to the business community,” Mason said.

Some of the solution in terms of the Lab’s infrastructure needs may take the form of public/private partnerships, he said. He said the Lab has been fortunate to receive a lot of federal funding for improvements and new facilities and that for some of the facilities that are specialized, those federal line items are the way to go.

“We are quite frankly out of space just in terms of office space and there are other tools in the box besides that federal line item so we are interested in exploring opportunities for public/private partnerships and lease arrangements to help meet some of those needs so that we can get back to two people in an office instead of three.” Mason said.

He said  another thing that comes with growth is parking and that the Lab is going through a procurement process to add some parking garages.

“Partly because of the unique and beautiful geography, there are actually limitations on how much flat space we’ve got to park cars and so things like parking garages make sense when you have a lot of people trying to get into a concentrated area and makes it hard just getting to work,” Mason said.

Longer term, he said the replacement of the Omega Bridge will have to be looked at.

“Actually in DOE, that’s a Laboratory asset. Most of the infrastructure is county, state, local government infrastructure but we have responsibility for that bridge and we have to think about its future. It’s okay now but it’s actually been around for a while,” Mason said. He said that gives an idea of the timeline in terms of site planning and that the Lab is trying to look over 10 or 20 years at there it is headed as an institution and what that is going to look like as well as issues such as how people are going to get in and out.

“One thing I would like to see is for the Laboratory to be even better integrated with the surrounding communities. Our success is intimately tied with being in a vibrant, thriving Northern New Mexico,” he said. “We are partnering with Regional Development Corporation on economic diversity, workforce development and obviously this is an example of where it’s the right thing to do but it’s important to us from a self-interest point of view,” he said.

He said as the Lab looks at hiring, it needs a skilled workforce and is looking forward to working with the RDC .

“Also there’s a strong educational component and LANL Foundation has been for many years a strong partner with the Lab in enhancing educational opportunities for these things with a scholarship program. It has awarded $773,500 in scholarships to New Mexico students. We recently announced a program with Northern New Mexico College for training radiation control technicians and I think this is an example of something we’re going to have to do more of. We have some critical skills needs that are kind of specific to our line of business and the ability to partner with the regional higher-ed institutions like Northern, UNM-LA, Santa Fe Community College. Those institutions have been very pleased with the interactions that we’ve had with the leadership. They are willing to work with us to tailor the curriculum so that we can have students graduate job-ready,” Mason said.

Mason also discussed building safer operations through cultural change.

“One of the reasons there was competition (for the contract) is that there had been some operational upsets that meant that the Lab was not meeting expectations of the (National Nuclear Security Administration) and the Department of Energy, and in fact Iost the confidence in some sense of NNSA and the Department of Energy. So we are working hard to improve and that takes a variety of different forms,” he said. “The key to improving operational culture of any organization oftentimes rests with first-line supervisors. They are the ones interacting with the staff who have their hands on the job and are in the best position to make sure that people are properly-equipped, properly-trained to execute the work safely, so we have a strong focus on that training and educational process.”

He said it’s very important to engage the employees in planning for the work activities because they are the ones that understand the jobs.

“Most importantly, the Laboratory needs to get better at learning from what happens, both positive and negative. It’s a large complex institution and what I’ve found in the time that I’ve been here is we have very technically-challenging complex work that is performed exceptionally well every day in certain areas of the Lab and in other areas of the Lab they struggle with that same work. We’re not effectively translating that knowledge from one area to the next,” Mason said.

“The other challenge is if when you look at some of the things that have happened in the past, they resemble one another, so that suggests that when something does go wrong there’s not sufficient ability to internalize that and learn from it so that over time we have less frequency and lower severity events. We need to get better at propagating the things that go well and the areas that work well across the whole institution and also over time we see fewer and less significant events,” he said. “That’s not something that happens in one day. It’s not something that happens November 1 when we have a new leadership team.”

On the other hand, he said it is clear to him that the Lab has a staff of 12,000 people who “show up to work every day, who are very motivated by the mission that they’re tied to and actually eager to find a way to do it better, to do it more cost-effectively and certainly to do it safely and so that they go home at the end of the day in the same condition they arrived”.

Mason said the 12,000 number is a full spectrum of skills.

“About 25 percent of our current staff are the sort of PhD scientists and engineers that you might normally associate with something like a national lab. The other 75 percent are every other skill that you could imagine. Obviously to do our job, we don’t just need the technical folks, we need human resources and communication and electricians and that’s helpful if they’re really motivated about the science and they really care about the mission,” he said.

He noted that the Lab has some 400 postdoctoral researchers as well as some 1,750 interns from a variety of institutions for the summer gaining experience.

“Those postdoctoral and internships are very important in terms of our future staff hires. If you go into any meeting at the Lab and ask how many people here as a student, the majority of people will put up their hand. It doesn’t matter what group it is, that’s true and the majority of interns come from New Mexico institutions,” Mason said.

Mason said with regards to the budget for FY19, the Lab is pretty much on track with the $2.7 billion received but will actually spend closer to $2.8 billion because of catching up on some of the increases from past years. He noted that a little more than a third of the staff joined the Lab in the last four years so there are a lot of new faces.

In 2018, Mason said almost 60 percent of total procurements in FY18 were awarded to small businesses which he called a very good number if compared to other DOE sites. The percentage to date in FY19 is around 71 percent. He said he is sure there’s no other laboratory in the country with that kind of percentage of small businesses. He said small business procurement tends to be local so that magnifies the economic impact in the region. He noted that double the pricing preference is given to Northern Mew Mexico small businesses for contracting and said the effects of those awards are being seen. The Lab is trying to streamline the process for subcontracting for small businesses which can be kind of daunting for small businesses to confront, he said.

“In everything we do our external partnerships are really critical. That’s why I appreciate the opportunity to talk to this group,” Mason said. “We’re also trying to work in a open and transparent manner with our local NNSA Field Office. It’s very important that we have a good strong partnership with N3B, the legacy cleanup contractor. We have a shared fate. They depend on us for the provision of certain services to accomplish their job and we depend on them to take care of those legacy waste issues so we’re in this together even though we have clearly differentiated areas of responsibility. We are also committed to working well with the Environmental Management that oversees the N3B contract, and the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board.”