NASA People

Center Snapshot: Linwood Smith
Linwood Smith. Image above: Linwood Smith ranges far and wide in searching for a diverse workforce for NASA Langley. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Jim Hodges

For those who believe diversity is defined by gender and race, Linwood Smith has advice: expand your horizons.

"If you want diversity, you have to bring in different minds offering different aspects of thinking," said Smith, who is responsible for NASA Langley's student pipeline and for overseeing the center's co-op program.

"Those people have the same goal, but because of how they are raised, they look at that goal in different ways. They might have been brought up on a farm, instilled with hard work that makes you work long hours. If you were raised in the city, you might have some shortcuts to streamline work.

"Bringing in those ideas is how we get diversity in culture in the center. It helps break down barriers."

"Breaking down barriers" comes often in a conversation with Smith, an Army veteran who enlisted shortly after finishing at Eastern Michigan University, which he attended on a baseball scholarship after growing up in South Central Los Angeles.

His Army career was spent in missiles – in Operation Desert storm, "we were like rock stars," Smith said. "We were Scud-busters." – and in recruiting, and he brings lessons from the military to his NASA Langley job.

His parents taught him to ignore race in making personal judgments, and the Army offered a criterion of whether "I knew I could depend on this guy if I was in the foxhole next to him" as a way to determine a person's merits.

It also offered him an opportunity to raise a family that included a son and daughter in Europe and to serve in Korea. In both places, "people don't look at you as a white American or a black American," said Smith. "They look at you as an American."

And that Army experience opened his eyes to an under-represented area of diversity in NASA and society as a whole.

"My biggest challenge now is that we need to improve on the people we have with disabilities," Smith said. "That's one of my goals this year: to increased our percentage of the number of people with disabilities. We have to work on a recruitment strategy to bring in more veterans, disabled veterans."

As a disabled veteran with a variety of injuries and ailments accumulated over his Army career, he empathizes with them.

"The difference in this war (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and past wars is that technology has saved a lot of young people who are now missing limbs or are blind," Smith said. "Because of medical technology, these people are saved whereas they might have died on the battlefield before. Now these people are coming back into society and they need a job. They need a chance."

As a recruiter for NASA, he knows where much of the work must be focused.

"We need to educate our managers and find good candidates because NASA is unique in comparison to other agencies in that we have education requirements and you've got to be able to do the job," Smith said. "It's breaking down barriers. A lot of times, managers don’t know how to handle a situation. The more we educate and train managers, the more likely we will be able to recruit these people."

Attending job fairs is part of the job and often is among its rewards.

"They make you thankful for having a job," Smith said, "and they make you want to go the extra mile for other people. If I can touch one or two, and maybe not bring them to NASA but refer them to another agency, take a look at a resume, make suggestions, then I'm helping. You can't save everybody. You can't give everybody a job, but you can help."

Time away from Langley is often spent catching up with email inquiries from the 200-300 people applying for co-ops every month, and from others interested in careers at NASA. And it's spent officiating college and high school basketball games and in playing softball with a team of military veterans.

"It's still fun to get out with the guys, exercise and tell a few lies," Smith said, laughing.

Time away is also spent in connecting with son Scott, a passport officer with the State Department; and daughter Erika, a teacher in Northern Virginia. And with wife Lori, who did a lot of the rearing of Scott and Erika during Smith's military absences.

And it's spent in planning for more efforts in diversity.

"Right now, we're looking to broaden our geographical area (for recruiting)," he said. "The area has shrunk because of money. When we can get a student from Notre Dame or UCLA or Stanford, we have to pay for that student's travel to the center after the first trip.

"Once we get an increase in the budget, we can go out and get some students from MIT, from Arizona, because Arizona may have a skill set that we need."

And, perhaps, it can offer another area in a never-ending quest for diversity in the workforce.