Tough times have returned to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The lab, which during Cold War times, enjoyed consistently growing budgets (and payroll) because its employees were doing work critical to national security. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union imploded, some elements of the core mission changed although it still centered on maintaining nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
The lab had been managed by the University of California since its founding, but thanks to truly poor management controls at its sister and the original nuclear lab in Los Alamos, NM, the management contracts for both facilities were put out to bid. UC correctly determined that it could not retain its management without private sector collaborators and ended up winning both management contracts with new partners. That shifted the culture from a non-profit university to a for-profit joint venture.
For Livermore, that resulted in substantial layoffs in the first year of the contract when the operators realized they had missed badly on the budget projections. Legal actions are still pending some those layoffs.
Fast forward to 2013 and the lab is dealing with the sequester legislation that supposedly nobody in Washington D.C. thought would take effect, but has. Instead of the across-the-board cuts, lab management has decided to sharply reduce its career workforce with an eye to the future.
Incidentally, the UC organizations are the only ones I have encountered that have a category known as “career employee”—meaning that unless you screw up really badly, you will have a job until you decide to retire. In the UC days, that meant a wonderful defined benefit retirement that climbed with inflation plus medical care. For retirees, that shifted big time when the new organization dramatically altered the retirees’ health care. It was clearly detrimental to retired employees and a retired employees group is still litigating that change.
Now, the lab has announced voluntary retirement program, with the incentive of up to 26 weeks of pay based upon years of service (one for one). The goal is reducing its career work force by up to 600 employees to prepare for the federal budget year 2014.
Parney Albright, the first non-home grown director, announced the plan to try and get ahead of the challenges that likely will face the lab with the new budget year starting Oct. 1. A cut of 600 employees from the 5,100 “career employees” would equal a nearly 12 percent reduction. Overall, about 6,500 people work at Livermore.
The budget challenges, which are affecting every federally funded agency, come on the heels of the lab’s statement that the National Ignition Facility has not achieved fusion in 2012. The $3.5 billion laser facility has been touted as demonstrating fusion to provide limitless cheap power as well as being critical to both the understanding of basic physics and to ensure that the nuclear weapons complex is still a reliable deterrent despite being without testing since the early 1990s.
The new reality for the ignition facility as a national experimental site resulted in the lab adding a second key executive to that program who is responsible for coordinating its use with non-Livermore groups.
Like it or not, it is another new day for the lab.