Recruiting for the Stars

By Robyn Kontra Tanner

Cal Poly finance alumna Michelle (Reimers) Roth originally planned to work on Wall Street, but found her career increasingly steering her toward business strategy and human resources (HR). Today, she leads talent management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where she manages recruitment across the lab for a variety of technical roles that support JPL’s research and missions to space.

What kind of talent are you hiring at JPL? 

The majority of our hiring is focused on engineering and software roles, but we also hire in physics, earth sciences, math, business, communications and administrative roles as well. It takes a diverse team to launch spacecraft and analyze the data.

Working at JPL seems like a job unlike any other. What do you look for in your team that’s different from other organizations?

No. 1: curiosity. If folks aren’t curious, this may not be the environment for them. We encourage it, we support it, we require it. The other thing is an implicit passion for space. People don’t come here for stock options and bonuses. They come here because they want to have an impact on the missions and the research that we engage in. I’ve been at other companies where we focused on trying to buy candidates with perks. We don’t need to operate that way at JPL because there is so much passion around what we do. It’s a Disneyland for engineers and scientists. Come play with us while exploring the most limitless horizon there is!

What question do you always ask in interviews?

One of my favorite questions is, “What’s the toughest problem you’ve ever had to solve?” Most people answer that from a career perspective, but sometimes they share a life experience. I just want to know what “tough” means to them. I think you can tell a lot about a person based on the challenges they have faced and how they responded.

NASA announced it’s newest class of astronauts earlier this year. What do you think that group says about where the organization is headed? 

Two of the astronauts in that class actually interned at JPL, so to see two of our own go that far was amazing. NASA is always working to ensure that the next generation is as excited about space as those who got to see the first moon walk. We make a great effort to make sure NASA/JPL is always seen as relevant, innovative and continuously stretching our understanding of the universe.

Do you work with Cal Poly alumni?

JPL has quite a few Cal Poly alumni. I feel like I meet a new Cal Poly alumnus every week. Cal Poly’s focus on Learn by Doing and an applied curriculum really set students up for success at JPL. We need employees to solve problems from day one.

JPL often ventures into the unknown. How are you recruiting for positions, technology or missions that haven’t been conceived of yet? 

I think the fact that we don’t always know what mission could be on the horizon or what form it could take is part of the attraction. No one wants to focus on the same problem or process over and over again. The beauty of our model is that you are going to work on different missions throughout your career and be exposed to different approaches and solutions, and you are always learning. Also, the uniqueness of the missions and projects we work on is something you can’t find anywhere else. Who wouldn’t want to explore the universe and look for signs of life?

What advice do you have for the undergraduates of today, regardless of where they’re going? 

When I was in college, I thought I had a plan. If, when I graduated, someone had told me I was going to lead talent management at JPL, I would have said, “No way, I’m going to be an investment banker.” It was only months into my fi rst job when that plan took a left turn. Sometimes you have to let it happen, give it a nudge now and then, but don’t go out there with too strict of a plan. Be open to what comes your way and be opportunistic.

Has working at NASA/JPL ever made you dream of going to space? 

No, definitely not. Sometimes I have trouble just flying across the country. It hasn’t increased my interest, but it has made me more amazed at those who do.

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