Engineers Juggle Work, Personal Obligations Written 31 July 2015

Panelists: Moderator Barbara Esker, NASA ARMD; Elizabeth Bierman, Honeywell Aerospace; Amanda Billiot, Pratt & Whitney; Jim Free, NASA Glenn Research Center; Klod Kokini, Purdue University

By Hannah Godofsky, AIAA Communications

Panelists discuss "Work/Life Balance Challenges for the 21st Century," July 29, at the 2015 AIAA Propulsion and Energy Forum in Orlando, Florida.

A panel of university and NASA aerospace experts at the Propulsion and Energy 2015 forum traded ideas about how to improve work-life balance across the U.S. aerospace community.

Session moderator Barbara Esker of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate framed the issue with a personal anecdote: “I am a proud member of the sandwich generation, or more accurately, as I think of it, the vice-grip generation,” she said, referring to the stresses of meeting work and family obligations. “I am often painfully and tightly caught between both childcare issues and challenges and elder care issues and challenges,” she said.

Amanda Billiot of Pratt & Whitney Human Resources said that roles within families can come in many forms. She asked for open-mindedness about this fact. “I think there’s a stigma against stay-at-home dads,” she said, relating her experience as her family’s breadwinner.

Billiot offered several ideas for improving work-life balance for engineers, including establishing greater autonomy. “Where the money is, where our future lies, is in things like working remotely,” she said. “And don’t tell me we already have this. In a lot of places, it’s so strict that it loses its appeal in terms of work life balance.”

Elizabeth Biernan of Honeywell Aerospace said working remotely is growing in popularity. “I’m not the minority anymore. It’s something that a lot of people take advantage of.”

Klod Kokini, a professor at Purdue University, said a better work-life balance would help schools retain a talented engineering faculty. “Work-life balance is an important piece of actually getting and recruiting and retaining [all] these faculty [members],” he said. “If you look at the overall faculty engineering presence …15.2 percent of engineering faculty are women, and about 6.2 percent are underrepresented minorities.” He said that industry is not currently “benefiting from the tremendous talent that’s out there.”

According the panelists, women are more likely to drop out of academic roles in engineering in part due to the demands of family life. “Anything we do to support women faculty benefits all the faculty,” said Kokini. He said Purdue has faced challenges with recruitment, in part due to the need to help spouses find new employment during the relocation process.

Jim Free, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, spoke about the challenges he has faced in his own work-life balance. “My whole life is work and home and my kids,” he said, describing his attempts to juggle work meetings and travel with family commitments, coupled with the demands of his children’s school and activities.

He said that work demands and travel inevitably cut into family time, but that he uses tools like FaceTime to communicate with family when he is away. “I miss stuff all the time, and I try and minimize it, but I will be honest with you, it’s very difficult for me,” he said.

He described how challenging it can be to unplug from work-related thoughts and communications even during off-hours. “Sometimes it’s the job you’re in, and that’s me rationalizing it; and sometimes you make the choice, you’ve got to pick one or the other,” he said.


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