Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why is there no substantive NWS training?

I've been an advocate for serious training of its forecasters by the National Weather Service (NWS) for what amounts to my entire career ... with essentially zero progress.  I watched a TV program about military training for snipers recently and was astonished at their methods ... the trainers are all experienced snipers themselves, new tactics are constantly being incorporated in response to changing conditions in real-world battle conditions, the trainers go back in the field after time spent in the sniper training program.  This TV program reminded me of the pitiful state of training in the NWS, and reveals a training process for military snipers that reflects many aspects of a proposal of mine I posted some years ago.  Please read my proposal before continuing ...

I've been told that my proposal is impractical and unaffordable - that is, I'm unrealistic.  Let me ask in response: how realistic is it to offer no meaningful forecaster training to new employees?  How realistic is it to have no continuing education and training program for weather forecasters?  How realistic is it to have no certification process by which forecasters demonstrate their competence periodically in order to continue doing their jobs?  How realistic is it to pour hundreds of millions into new forecasting technology and next to nothing into the people who use that technology?  How realistic is it to assume that four years of undergraduate meteorology provides all you'll ever need to know to do the most challenging job in all of meteorology? From where I sit, it's not I who is being unrealistic!

The human component of the NWS is the single largest budget item for the agency.  The science and technology behind automated, "objective" weather forecasting has been underwritten by hundreds of millions for decades and is ongoing today.  Yet, to this day, the NWS invests only marginally in training and so, for example, we have no idea what it takes to be a good weather forecaster, because that involves learning about people, not about differential equations and computer code.  We meteorologists learn math and physics in school - that's education.  We can argue about how good our meteorology education is, but I know for a fact that at the end of a four year undergraduate program, new graduates still don't know very much about the atmosphere and how it really works.  For myself, it was well into my doctoral studies before I began to obtain a dim understanding of processes in the atmosphere.  Nearly forty years later, I'm still learning, of course!

Training is about how to take the principles you learned via education and apply those principles to a specific job.  In our case, for the most part universities don't train their students how to forecast.
Although a few university professors might do a decent job of instilling the principles of atmospheric science (i.e., educating them), most of them don't do a decent job.  And when their graduates go to work as weather forecasters, how do they learn how to forecast?  See here, as well.  For the most part, it's up to them to learn it on their own.  A few lucky ones might be given the chance to learn from a competent mentor.

What training that the NWS provides is dominated today by "distance learning" - self-study modules on specific topics.  There's precious little face-to-face training of the sort described in my proposal.  Many of the people creating these training modules are good folks, doing the best they can, but it's like bailing out the Pacific with a thimble.  The few in-residence courses are pretty decent, but far too little and too infrequent to be of much enduring value.

It's unconscionable that a bloated NWS bureaucracy continues their incompetent management, even as they shortchange training programs for their forecasters.  NWS management is under investigation currently (spring 2012) from Congress for misappropriating funds ... and it's coming to light how they've allowed their agency to become seriously underfunded over the past several decades.  I wouldn't mind seeing a clean sweep of NWS managers, and a major reduction in the bureaucracy (including NWS Headquarters and elimination of the regional bureaucracies altogether).  There's a lot of fat in the NWS budget, mostly comprising fatheads trying unsuccessfully to manage the system!

Maybe some of the money saved by a drastic reduction of the NWS bureaucracy could be used to develop a meaningful training process in the NWS for the first time in its history.


James Correia, Jr said...

I have found that a lot of people who visit the Hazardous Weather Testbed come to learn. Whether it is about ensembles, or SPC forecasting approaches/techniques, or new models. Even in the not so recent, but still very relevant, publication by Novak et al (2007) forecasters were asking for training specifically in ensembles. It appears it will take a revolution (miracle) to enact any substantive changes because the fall back position is always: "what will we sacrifice to do that?"

Don Baker said...

And, the NWS is advocating a so-called "weather ready nation" (slogan du jour) when it, arguably, isn't even "weather ready".

Justin Reid said...

Thank you Chuck for another insightful article about problems in the NWS and meteorology in general. I am a recent atmospheric science graduate and you're spot on about how forecasting techniques are rarely touched on in college. I believe that the lack of training isn't just limited to the NWS or just meteorology. Due to my computer programming background I can apply for some tech jobs, but since I don't have every programming language/software requirement for certain positions and there is no opportunity for training I can't apply for most of them. I call this the "experience canyon" and this problem is very extensive, especially due to the recession.

I agree with you also that the NWS's/COMET's MetEd program is a great training tool, however it cannot replace face to face instruction (i.e. via meetings, lecture). This entire situation is probably one of my biggest beefs in meteorology these days where, even in academic settings, I feel that to ask for such a service is sometimes too much of a problem for an "expert" to handle because they are busy doing something else. To really be honest I have been really disillusioned with what our science has become over the past few years, but this doesn't mean I will not become a part of it.

Have a good day,

Justin Lynn Reid