"Call to Responsibility"
Michael Huerta, Torrance, CA
August 23, 2017
NHCFAE Training Conference Remarks
Thank you, David. I also want to thank you, Misty, and the Hispanic Coalition for everything you’re doing to strengthen and support our workforce around the country.
I’m very pleased to be here in California, and it’s especially nice for me, because, as many of you know, I grew up nearby in Riverside, only about an hour from here.
Being close to home, I think for all of us, brings back a few memories of growing up, and starting out our careers and our lives, and more importantly, how things have changed during our lifetimes.
And this is reflected in your conference theme—Honoring our Past, Defining our Future.
The events of the last few weeks have been profoundly troubling to me, and I suspect many of you as well. As much as we would all like to believe that racism and intolerance are events in the distant past, something in the history books, what we saw two weeks ago in Charlottesville made it clear that we were wrong.
Make no mistake about it – there is no place in American society for racism or for intolerance. We are a diverse nation and that is a source of incredible strength.
In talking about what we have seen, some people say, “that is not who we are.” I truly appreciate that sentiment. But it is a part of who we are. What do I mean by that? White nationalism and neo-Nazism are real, and the people that espouse those views reflect a troubling history that is all too real here in the United States. I strongly believe that unless we understand that history, unless we confront that history, we could be doomed to repeat it.
Maybe it’s more correct to say “that is not who we want to be” – an aspiration. And aspirations can only be met through hard work, dialogue, and most importantly, a willingness to listen.
Last month my uncle passed away. He was in his 90s and lived a very full and productive life. He was my dad’s older brother and one of the last of that generation of my family. His passing got me thinking about my family, their struggles, and how they built the foundation for the opportunities I have had, my sisters have had, my cousins and everyone in our extended family have had.
My grandparents came here to California from a place called Morelia, in Mexico. It is the story many of us share. They came in search of a better life, and they found it.
My grandfather, my uncles, and my dad worked in the citrus industry here in California. They picked oranges.
This was at a time when oranges were considered an exotic fruit. A very special thing to have in your house. Picking them was very hard work. A worker would lay the ladder up against a tree, climb up the ladder, and cut the oranges off the tree with a knife. You wouldn’t just pull them off. My dad told me that the trick was to cut the stem right where it joined the fruit, where there was, at the end of the stem, a green star-shaped growth. They would have to cut the oranges so that the green star would still be there. Then they would drop the oranges into a bag that was tied around them. They were paid based on how many bags of oranges they picked.
My aunts worked in the packing house. Their job was to wrap the oranges. Every orange was wrapped in a piece of green tissue paper. One by one, the oranges were wrapped and placed in boxes. The boxes were then loaded on to refrigerated train cars and shipped to the eastern part of the United States.
My father never graduated from high school. He needed to work to help support his family. But he and two of my uncles served in the military during World War II – a war that we know was all about stamping out racism and genocide. All three of them fortunately returned home after the war to build that American dream.
My sisters and I were lucky because of the sacrifices made by those that came before us. It created a framework and an opportunity for us.
My older sister was the first in our family to finish college, and all four of us went on to graduate.
We grew up proud of our heritage, but as a result of the commitment and the belief that my parents had, there was never any talk about race or ethnicity being a limiting factor. We thought we were just as American as anyone else.
Today, we’re living in a much more polarized time in America. There is this desire to put us in one box or another – with regard to race, gender, religion and other categories.
I think a big reason for this has to do with the rapid and incredible changes that are taking place in our society. Some long-standing industries are shifting because of automation or globalization. And culturally, we’re much more diverse than we’ve ever been before.
These changes are causing many of our friends and neighbors to live in fear. There is a sense among many that their job could disappear at any moment. That things aren’t the way they used to be, or the way they think it should be.
All of us have a responsibility to think very broadly about these changes, and how they affect not just us and our community, but everyone. We need to have a serious conversation about how we can best adapt to the radical changes we’re experiencing as a country right now.
All of us in this room are incredibly fortunate. We have good jobs, great education and people that care about us.
And we’ve all certainly given back. Through this Coalition, you award scholarships, and offer training and mentoring opportunities.
These are very good and meaningful ways to give back, and we should be incredibly proud of that.
And it’s important that we remember to give back in a larger sense. How do we give back to the larger society, to everyone? It is not a question only about how we take care of ourselves. We cannot allow our larger national aspirations to be about winners and losers. It needs to be about how can we, as a larger society, adapt to change and how do we take care of everyone.
There’s a lot of change in our world. And how we adapt to it will be a defining piece of our history as Americans.
Closer to home, we’re certainly seeing profound changes in aviation.
This industry has gone through an impressive amount of consolidation.
We could be looking at 4 million drones by 2021.
And several commercial space launches per week by then as well.
We could be looking at electric air taxis that take us to the airport, or even across town.
This is just the beginning of the changes we’re seeing in our industry. We can expect that new technologies will continue to revolutionize aviation, just as we’re seeing in so many other areas of society.
And as you know, there is some uncertainty in the agency right now. When Congress comes back from their August recess, we expect they’ll vote on the FAA’s reauthorization bill.
Of course, one of the proposals they’re considering is to restructure air traffic control into an independent, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization.
To address the challenges ahead, there’s no doubt that we need a workforce that is highly skilled, diverse and inclusive, and also eager to learn. This is really at the heart of the agency’s Workforce of the Future Initiative.
We have to continue to reach out to people from all walks of life, so that we can attract the broadest pool of candidates for the great careers here at the FAA.
And we have to identify and eliminate any barriers that would prevent us from achieving equal opportunity.
In doing these things, our agency will continue to reflect the very best of America.
When we have people with different strengths, backgrounds and viewpoints at the table, we make much better decisions as an agency.
But to realize that promise, we have to focus on more than just the numbers.
The true test of diversity is whether we can create a culture of professional inclusiveness and collaboration. The two really go hand in hand.
A great example of that is right here at the conference. I know we have executives here from the Office of Personnel Management and the State Department to share best practices on workforce development.
And in many other ways, the agency is collaborating with our federal partners and other stakeholders in ways we haven’t done in the past.
As part of our safety Compliance Philosophy, we’re working with the aviation industry to identify and mitigate safety risks.
We’re also working with industry to deliver real benefits through NextGen.
And for nearly a year, we’ve been working with the drone community to safely integrate these new vehicles into the airspace system.
For us to succeed in all of these areas, the FAA has to match the rapid innovation that’s happening in industry. We have to be more flexible. We have to be nimbler. We have to be more creative, and we have to be comfortable with always feeling a little bit uncomfortable with how fast everything is changing.
This means we have to continue to invest in our workforce. Managers should think about how we can tap our employees’ unique backgrounds and strengths.
And I encourage YOU – all of our employees no matter what level you are in the agency – to develop “learning agility.” In other words, be willing to learn as much as you can, so that we’re prepared to take on anything that comes our way. Because I guarantee you that something is headed our way, probably in a year or two, that we have not even thought about today.
It used to be that career progress was much more straightforward.
You took step 1, then step 2, then step 3, and you got to the job you wanted. But, as we all know it’s not that simple anymore.
We have to continue to expand our skill set, in areas like communication, public speaking, negotiation, collaboration, problem solving and other areas.
I’ll give you a good example of someone who is committed to learning, and expanding his skill set.
We have an FAA team member named Andy Nahle [NAW – LEE]. He grew up right here in Los Angeles. He became an engineer and worked in Technical Operations, helping us to build radar, navigational aids, and other systems.
He also had a passion for law enforcement, so he became a reserve police officer, and did that job on nights and weekends.
After more than two decades, he left the FAA to pursue a Master’s in Business Administration, and then went into the private sector to build facilities at airports.
Now he’s back at the FAA helping us with our drone integration efforts. Specifically, he’s helping us to address important issues involving state and local law enforcement of drones, and how first responders can use drones.
These are important issues for us to resolve, before we can move forward with more widespread integration. We have to figure out the roles of local and state governments, the federal government, and we have to understand the unique security challenges in our airspace.
And we have to work with industry and airports and our Federal partners to address drone detection and Counter UAS efforts, to make sure that drones aren’t jeopardizing safety near airports, or in unauthorized airspace.
Last May, right here in LA County, Andy spoke to a group of police officers, firefighters and city officials about drone use. He’s going to do something similar in New Orleans in October.
As you can see, Andy is a good example of how someone can match up his education, his technical expertise, public speaking and communication skills, and a fair dose of passion – engineering and law enforcement in his case – in a way that can help us to address what is now a very big challenge for the agency.
I think we all need to be thinking along those lines. Because today, career success is very much about how professionally well rounded we can be. Sometimes the things you may think are a hobby could very well turn out to be crucial knowledge and capability that the agency is going to need in the years ahead.
Coming to this training conference speaks volumes about your commitment to your own professional development. And I encourage you to take full advantage of the agency’s employee development opportunities.
But I also encourage you to be curious. Because when we’re curious, we can learn more rapidly.
This spirit of curiosity is something I certainly had as a kid. A couple of years ago I told you that when I was a paper boy, and I would ride my bike along the fence of the local airport.
I would peek through the fence and see the planes take off. I always wondered where those planes were headed.
Today, I still wonder where planes are headed.
I also wonder where the drones are headed.
And I wonder where the commercial space industry is going to take us.
I’ve had to learn about a lot of new areas, since I joined the FAA in 2010.
I encourage you to be eager to learn as much as you can as well.
So let’s certainly honor our past. Let’s remember where we started. I can say without a doubt that our heritage shapes who we are, and who we become.
But perhaps more importantly, let’s also prepare ourselves so that we can meet the demands of the future. As we do that, the FAA's future will be bright, and we’ll continue to be a model for the rest of the world.
And as leaders, and as those who have been fortunate, we have a particular and special responsibility to think about how we can ensure that social benefits are shared across all segments of American society. And if we do that, I think we’ll make a lasting contribution to our nation, and to the world.
Finally, I want to say thank you to all of you. Seven years ago, the Hispanic Coalition was the very first group I spoke to, when I joined the agency as Deputy Administrator. It feels like we have come full circle. Thank you for your support, your advice, and the passion that you bring to the FAA, each and every day. God bless you.