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Many offices and workplaces closed abruptly, ORAU included, in spring 2020 to protect employees from the spread of the coronavirus. The vast majority of their employees were sent home to work remotely, and thus the workplace may have changed forever.

Pre-pandemic, only about 20% of workers who say they can do all or most of their job from home were working remotely. During the pandemic that number rose to 71%, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in December 2020.

Most remote workers, 54%, want to continue working from home after the pandemic ends. Working from home, they say, gives them greater flexibility in scheduling. They also say that they have the equipment and access to technology they need to work remotely.

“We knew we couldn’t delay this important learning process for program participants. We had to make sure it happened to the best of our ability…”

—Craig Layman, Ed.D.
ORISE director of workforce development

That ORAU and its customers were able to make the move to remote work quickly and relatively seamlessly is a testament to the agility and resilience of every organization, agency and facility involved.

Never Waste a Crisis

ORAU- and ORISE-managed STEM workforce development programs host between 8,000 and 9,000 research program participants in various federal government programs every year (see chart on opposite page for details). These are undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers who participate in programs at the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as at national labs and other facilities. The K-12 STEM education team hosts another 2,000 teachers and students for professional development opportunities, STEM workshops and summer institutes. In 2020, all of these programs made the pivot to remote work or virtual platforms and were still able to meet the needs of both the agencies and the participants.

“Quarantine didn’t mean stop doing everything,” said Craig Layman, Ed.D., ORISE director of workforce development. “It meant we had to use the technology we had at hand and determine new and innovative ways to implement said technology in this new learning environment, which is exactly what we did.”

workplace resiliency chart

Research participation programs are very hands-on, immersive learning experiences where undergraduates, graduates and postdoctoral researchers work alongside career scientists and mentors in settings like Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Like many other workplaces, laboratories and other federal agency facilities closed because of the pandemic. Before that happened, Layman’s teams were hard at work making remote work possible for program participants.

“Working with our sister laboratories and our partners, we very quickly put together plans on how we were going to be able to host remote internships and virtual internships,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t delay this important learning process for program participants. We had to make sure it happened to the best of our ability and the hosting facility’s ability.” At one point, 80% of all research program participants were participating remotely.

“The process of transitioning from on-site to virtual or remote-based research was incredibly complex,” Layman said. ORISE has research program participants at several hundred facilities across the country. “Each of those facilities had different problems they were trying to solve when it comes to the pandemic,” he said. “Leadership at each facility approached things differently. Some were very eager to transition to a remote environment and others, especially the larger facilities, were trying to understand how they could do that because participants have to be on site where the toys (i.e., supercomputers, reactors, advanced manufacturing equipment, etc.) and materials are.”

Leigh Ann Pennington, labor economist, added that there was an extra layer of complexity involved for research program participants who are foreign nationals. There were lots of questions that needed to be answered: “Where do they want to experience their appointment? Do they need to get home? Should they not go home? Do they need to get home before a certain date? How does that impact their appointment?”

Layman credits his highly responsive team for rolling up their sleeves and digging in to the process of making the transition to a remote research experience as smooth as possible by answering questions, finding customers’ pain points and then looking for solutions to make the process work for agencies, facilities and program participants alike.

K-12 Programming Goes Virtual

Of the 2,000 K-12 teachers and students Layman mentioned earlier, all but one program geared toward that important audience made the pivot from in-person to virtual learning. Only the Oak Ridge Robotics Academy took place in person, with plenty of safe distancing, masking and other requirements.

The biggest success may be the virtual Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC)/ORNL High School Summer Math-Science-Technology Institute and the ARC/ORAU Middle School Science Academy. Both programs are funded by ARC. In ordinary times, the high school program takes place over two weeks and incudes bench-side research projects at ORNL, while the middle school program is a one-week program at ORAU. Not this year, though. In fact, K-12 Senior Project Manager Jennifer Tyrell and her team had just six weeks’ notice to implement a whole new program.

“The incredible team of people I work with were able to completely reimagine the program and take it from a residential research experience to a completely online research experience,” Tyrell said. “The way we were able to accomplish that was by sending students and teachers a great big box of research supplies ahead of time.”

Those boxes contained everything students and teachers needed to conduct their research in areas like 3D printing, robotics systems, spatial analysis, climate science and physics modeling for high school students. Teachers focused on chemical sciences, plant growth and cytogenetic biodosimetry. Middle school students, led by master teachers, investigated 3D-printing technology, coding micro:bits and computer science.

Literally everything they needed to create an optimal learning environment in their homes came in those boxes, nearly 100 in all. Students got something extra: laptop computers. Those who didn’t have access to Wi-Fi were also given prepaid hotspots.

“The largest challenge we faced was technology. We had a lot of students who didn’t have technology knowledge and also didn’t have Internet access,” Tyrell said. “We were dealing with students in rural areas of Appalachia. We had to provide them with laptops and other hardware to be able to access the internet, and then provide them a way to get on the internet with a hotspot.”

Despite not being able to hold these residential programs in person, Tyrell said they were a tremendous success. “The students and teachers who participated were overwhelmingly pleased with the experience they were able to get, still made personal connections with one another, and still were exposed to career scientists and all kinds of different career opportunities,” she said.

Tyrell expects future K-12 programming will become a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning.

Building on Our Virtual Foundation

ORAU’s workforce solutions team, which recruits and places candidates into positions that often become full-time jobs at agencies like EPA and the National Institutes of Health, was pandemic proof but didn’t know it.

Our team has always embraced technology and efficiency,” said Amanda Hurley, ORAU section manager for workforce solutions. “Our whole recruiting process is extremely digital, and we always followed the candidate where they were and where they go. So that was business as usual for us.” 

Hurley added, “Because we already had efficient digital practices in place, we did not have to rethink how to transition due to COVID, we just built on our established success.”

Hurley said many contracts with customers didn’t allow for the possibility of remote work. As it became clear that telework would become a necessity, her team worked with their customers to modify contracts to quickly allow 200-plus employees to work from home and ensure employee performance and productivity.

Remote work has proven many things, including the fact that workers can be just as productive at home as they are in an office environment. As a result, many organizations are reconsidering the need for office space. The commercial real estate advisory firm Savills reports that 55% of organizations are considering shedding some office space in the next 12 to 18 months. Likewise, employees are considering whether they want to go back to working eight-hour days with long commutes.

“We’re data nerds at heart,” Hurley said. “We look at what candidates are searching for, and right now we’re seeing a lot of keywords around remote and telework.”

Being data nerds helps her team best meet the needs of their candidates, Hurley said. “We want to meet them where they are. So we always look to see where the job seekers are searching, and we do our best to cultivate a database of really strong candidates that are always in contact with us.”

Post-Pandemic STEM Careers

In a post-pandemic world, Pennington is hopeful history will repeat itself. “I was honored to stand up the first education programs for the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. We were just amazed at the number of young people who felt compelled to work to protect the homeland,” she said. “We would advertise an opportunity with 100 slots and get thousands of applicants, and they were all amazing.”

Every one of those applicants wanted to give back and do something to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Pennington foresees a similar response in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. “I think we’ll see lots of young people excited about the work they can do to prevent a pandemic and the impacts of a pandemic going forward,” she said.

While many opportunities will be in the life sciences, there will be plenty of opportunities in data science, artificial intelligence, epidemiology and more. “We’ll have a surge of interest from young people who didn’t know what this was prior to the pandemic,” she said. “Students and our young people will drive some of these occupations, and the federal government will want to invest money in vaccines and therapeutics to fight new coronaviruses as they develop. That’s my hope, anyway.”

Hope. There’s no better sign of resilience than that.