After serving as acting manager of the EM-Los Alamos Field Office, Thomas Johnson will return to the Savannah River Site, where he serves as deputy manager of the DOE-Savannah River Operations Office.

Thomas Johnson Jr.

Thomas Johnson Jr. retires on May 31 after 41 years in the federal government, 30 of them in EM. He has served as the DOE Savannah River Site (SRS) deputy manager since September 2018, and as associate deputy manager at the site from 2015 to 2018. Johnson started his EM career at SRS as a remedial project manager from 1992 to 2006. His path also has taken him out to California as the EM federal project director at the Energy Technology Engineering Center site, and to EM headquarters, where he served stints as director of the EM American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program and as associate deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and project management.

How did you get your start in EM?

I received my start in EM due to a reference from a colleague. I was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the time when a former colleague, who transferred to DOE-SRS a couple years prior, suggested that an opening for a project manager for a landfill construction project was just posted (April 1992) and thought that my background would make me a prime candidate for the position. I made the decision to leave the Corps after having served as its first cooperative education student from the University of South Carolina followed by seven years as a full-time employee. While this was a difficult decision, the timing was perfect for my family.

How did your perspective on the EM program change after working at multiple field sites and headquarters?

I believe I am one of the few people within the Department that has worked at a large site, a small site, DOE Headquarters, and my eventual return to SRS in a senior leadership role. Each location has its own unique culture that you must recognize and learn to deal with in respect to its management and interaction with the community and regulators.

The primary differences that I found is that when you work at a specific site, the problems of that location are the most important thing to you as an employee and you deal with it on a more personal level. You see your fellow employees, colleagues, community members and regulators both within and outside of the workplace environment — you see them at the stores, church, ballgames, and perhaps even volunteer events. You know that the decisions you make have a direct impact on the lives of those individuals — the faces that you see on a regular basis. At headquarters, even though the decisions that you make may have an even greater impact, it does not seem to have a personal linkage to it. This may be because you don’t have to deal directly with anyone other than the federal employee(s) or perhaps the company senior leadership. At the headquarters level, a specific site is likely just one of the many sites that you have to interact with. Sometimes the issue at a specific site, while of great importance to the site, pales in comparison to the issue being dealt with at another or several sites at the same time. This may leave a site feeling that it is unimportant; however, the real issue is its specific concern is not at the level of crisis being dealt with at the other site that may require more focused attention.

I also believe that regardless of where your desired position is located, all employees and especially those in leadership positions should experience working both in the field and headquarters. This would give the employee a better sense of how to balance priorities and better understand how decisions are made and viewed as the environment in the field and at headquarters can sometimes be starkly different. Headquarters can be viewed as only caring about the budget and image, while the field is often viewed as too emotionally attached to needs/decisions and unconcerned about the overall budget.

You served as deputy director and director of EM’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Program from 2009-2012. How did the stimulus funding help advance the EM mission?

The EM Recovery Act stimulus funding was probably the greatest game-changer during my tenure as a federal employee. At the time, EM’s normal annual budget was on the order of $6 billion dollars and the influx of ARRA funding matched that total with no corresponding decrease to the normal budget in subsequent years. We were able to use those funds to immediately impact the economy through having nearly 36,000 workers directly benefit from the additional funding. Ninety-one projects were originally selected under the EM ARRA program and 90 percent of those in the original portfolio were completed within cost and on schedule. Savings from the original projects were used to complete 33 additional projects. The total portfolio was completed 5 percent under costs. All of the projects were completed without a single Government Accountability Office or DOE Office of Inspector General adverse finding or deficiency in the management of the funds or projects.

EM ARRA funds were used to shrink EM’s footprint from 3,125 square miles when the EM program began in 1989 to only 90 square miles by the completion of ARRA Program in 2015.

What do you see as the biggest achievement in your time at EM?

While the work of the ARRA program was monumental for the cleanup program, I believe some of the things we are doing now at SRS will continue to keep us in good standing with the community, regulators and employees, and could serve as a model for other DOE sites. We meet regularly with the community to ensure they not only know what is happening at the site, but provide them with an opportunity to influence what we are doing at the site through community events and citizens advisory board meetings at locations across South Carolina and Georgia; we partner with the regulators on documents to allow them to understand the decision process which greatly reduces the number of surprises/disagreements on cleanup plans; and we meet regularly with employees to hear their concerns and have discussions on how to improve the workplace. This collaborative approach has been used at each of the three DOE locations that I have worked. I have seen communities move from not trusting the Department because of lack of transparency to eagerly scheduling community meetings. Not every concern necessarily resulted in a change, but they knew they were heard, input considered, and feedback provided if a change could not be made.

What do you see as EM’s biggest challenge moving forward?

EM came into existence in 1989 and the bulk of its employees came onboard in the 1990-1992 timeframe. Most of those employees, much like myself, are now ready to exit on into the next phase of their lives. So without question, one of the biggest challenges that EM will face going forward is finding a replacement workforce. At SRS, we elected to work directly with local colleges and universities to ensure the curriculum matches the needs of the site for the higher education demand jobs and have certificate-based programs in place for operators and technician type positions. We are also working to ensure the workforce of the future is diverse and the workers understand that SRS is not just a place for a job, but a place where one could actually have a career due to the vast mission of the site.

What are you going to miss most about EM?

I will definitely miss the people — federal and contractor colleagues, community members, interactions with congressional staffers, and even interactions with headquarters senior leadership. The people at every level care deeply about their communities and impact of Environmental Management programs and operations. There will be no more late evening calls to settle the concerns of a community member or crisis related to staff or headquarters emails demanding urgent responses.