Nuclear engineers - the next generation (part I)3 April 2002
One of the biggest questions facing all parts of the nuclear industry is not a technical question, but the rather more fundamental question of attracting enough nuclear engineers into the industry to ensure its long term survival. So where is the next generation coming from? By David Flin
Anecdotal evidence is not a very scientific methodology. Fortunately, I am an engineer, not a scientist. Whenever I have gone round a nuclear facility, be it power plant or fuel fabrication facility or reprocessing plant, the average age of people working in the plant is about 50. There is rarely anyone below the age of about 35. Simple arithmetic tells us that if this perception is at all accurate, then the industry faces a very uncertain future, as it will not be long before the excess of people leaving the industry through retirement over the number of people entering the industry reaches critical proportions.
If this observation is valid in any way, then it is essential for action to be taken now to mitigate the problem. Discussions with various people have indicated that there is a major problem developing, with some comments suggesting that it is already having an impact.
Given that it takes several years to fully train nuclear engineers, and that experience is a very valuable commodity, it is clear that there is likely to be a hiatus of skills. It is curious to note that one of the single most common phrases used in discussions I have had has been: "The government has to take action to solve the problem." To my way of thinking, this is an idiotic frame of mind. In an increasingly deregulated environment, governments steer clear of involvement.
Furthermore, even if governments could take such action, companies are still going to be operating in a largely competitive market. People entering the market are going to be a valuable commodity, and they will go to firms that offer them the best opportunities. In many ways, the situation may come to resemble that which pertained in the computer industry in the 1980s, when computer specialists could essentially name their own salary.
Competition for new blood is going to be fierce, and any organisation which simply assumes that it will get its fair share of new engineers without having to work for them will not remain a viable organisation for long.
There are three main questions to be answered in dealing with this ageing population:
• Is there a problem?
• What can be done to resolve the problem?
• What are individual organisations doing to resolve the problem?
Competition or co-operation
One feature of the situation that has been heavily remarked upon has been that in all probability, there will be more places to be filled than skilled people to fill them. This will, inevitably, lead to a situation where organisations are in direct competition for a scarce resource.
As with computer programmers in the early 1980s, there may be high mobility among the personnel, who will be able to get very good deals from companies desperate for their skills.
It is interesting to note that several companies have suggested that, as in other areas in the nuclear industry where there is a shortage of a particular resource (such as obsolete equipment), there is a major benefit to be gained from co-operation. We have already seen the formation of organisations such as Sparesfinder.com, which are dedicated to providing a database of spare equipment. It has been suggested that a similar thing might be done with regard to the scarce resource of skilled personnel.
However, most companies appear to view the situation as one in which they will have to aggressively compete for these skilled people.
Is there a problem?
Before one decides to engage on an extensive and expensive solution to a problem, it is generally worthwhile to first check whether or not there is a problem to solve. It is also valuable to determine the critical parts of the problem.
In an article in the UK Financial Times by Matthew Jones on 9 October, 2001, it was reported that Britain's nuclear regulator had warned that a shortage of safety inspectors could disrupt decommissioning programmes and prevent new nuclear power stations from being constructed.
Several organisations have carried out studies to determine the situation. The UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has carried out a study (the Nuclear Skills Study). The introduction to the report on this study reads:
"Concern exists that a skills shortage is developing within the nuclear industry, evidenced by the age profile of those employed, that could severely hinder the ability of the industry to operate and, perhaps more importantly, hinder its ability to manage its liabilities, including decommissioning, environmental remediation, and waste management.
"The potential shortage lies in all sectors: practitioners, educators, trainers and regulators."
The DTI, as its first step in evaluating the extent of the problem, is carrying out a skills audit of the current industry. This audit is intended to: "Establish the profile of the national skilled population of suitably qualified and experienced persons in the current nuclear and radiological involved industries, and quantify the factors that shape that changing profile, in order to provide the Nuclear Skills Group with a baseline upon which future initiatives can be based."
The audit will identify potential skills shortages in the medium- and long-term future, and stimulate initiatives to eliminate or reduce potential shortfalls
The key features of this skills audit will be to:
• Produce a quantitative snapshot of the current industry, identifying both industry's needs and the availability of suitably qualified and experienced persons.
• Identify the current drivers, as the population is dynamic.
• Identify role profiles, rather than post profiles, to enable a 'common skills currency' to be used across the industry.
• Differentiate between education, training, experience and competency.
• Differentiate between generic skills, that any suitably skilled non-nuclear engineer or technician must possess, and unique skills that a suitably skilled person in the nuclear industry must additionally possess.
• Recognise that extant work exists and incorporate it where valid.
The DTI study is split into three parts:
• Baseline. This is to establish the industry's current needs and the available suitably qualified, educated, trained and experienced population, recognising the dynamic nature of the population.
• Foresight. To postulate the alternative scenarios that may occur and quantify their effect on the baseline.
• Stimulation. To stimulate initiatives to prevent the potential skills shortages identified by the baseline and foresight exercises.
According to Catrina Hassal, chair of the UK Young Generation Network, while the nuclear industry may have problems with recruitment and retention, these problems may be no worse than those experienced in other sectors competing in the "war for talent". The main needs are to recruit good quality scientists, engineers and skilled technicians. Shortfalls in recruitment could be related to falling numbers of available graduates in appropriate fields.
She does believe that the negative image of the industry held by some can be a factor for staff who decide to leave and pursue careers elsewhere.
In February 2001, the members of the Young Generation Network were sent a questionnaire asking for their views on the subject of recruitment and staff retention, and also why they had chosen a career in the nuclear industry. The results were presented at a government forum on nuclear education and training.
Members gave their main reasons for choosing a career in the nuclear industry as the wish to pursue science and contribute to an industry they believed in. Many of the members had enjoyed learning about nuclear engineering at school or had secondary school teachers who spoke positively about nuclear power. It was also apparent that members believed negative public perception and perceived lack of future was affecting recruitment and retention.
In July 2000, the OECD published a report: "Nuclear Education and Training: cause for concern?" The report, which focused principally on the provision of nuclear education (as opposed to the wider issue of the provision of suitably educated and trained people), highlighted that: "The ability to educate was falling, perhaps to problematic levels." The OECD therefore recommended that governments engage in strategic planning of education and manpower, integrated with human resource planning, to encourage young students into nuclear research and development.
The initial response of the Nuclear Safety Directorate (NSD) to this report was to commission a study on vocational training in applied nuclear technologies in universities. The NSD report highlighted the need to carefully preserve remaining vocational training. Universities are increasingly commercialised and against a background of declining student numbers, the survival of these courses will depend on how successfully nuclear education is promoted.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), about 25% of the nuclear workforce in the USA will be at or near retirement age within the next ten years.
The NEI carried out a study of utilities including Arizona Public Service Company, Commonwealth Edison, Entergy Operations, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, Florida Power, Pacific Gas and Electric, PECO Energy, Southern Company and the Tennessee Valley Authority. It showed that the main concerns of the utilities participating in the study were:
• Ageing of the workforce. Some utilities said that the average age of their nuclear engineering workforce is in the 40s, and others in the 50s. In one company, 50% of current employees will be eligible to retire in five years.
• A declining pool of graduates in these fields and fewer people with sought-after specialities. The specialities mentioned by some recruiters included nuclear knowledge or a physics perspective, electrical engineering, and qualifications in areas such as nuclear fuels and instrumentation and control.
• Finding candidates to meet diversity needs (minorities and women).
• Intense competition on college campuses from many other industries vying for the same people. Nuclear was said to be 'Getting a lot of declines.'
• The image of utilities. Some noted that high technology companies drew graduates because they are seen as younger, innovative and revolutionary; whereas the power industry is seen as traditional, conservative and highly-regulated, with an older workforce.
• The perception that the nuclear industry is fading, with plants shutting down, end of life cycle, and public opposition. One utility noted that the perception problem is often with parents, who voice objections and influence career decisions of the students.
• The location of plants. These may not appeal to people from outside the region. The location typically appeals to people who like to be in rural areas away from population centres.
The NEI study showed that some companies view the problem with such trepidation that they are recruiting some top people even if there is no job available. The attitude is: "We'll find a slot for them."
According to Tony Greco of Westinghouse, the average age of an engineer with his company is 47, which he regards as being fairly representative of the industry as a whole. He estimates that in less than 10 years up to 25% of the US nuclear power industry's workforce will retire.
He also sees other trends that appear to be alarming. The number of university research reactors has declined dramatically over the last 20 years. In the USA alone, the number has dropped from 70 reactors to less than 30 today.
In the USA, only 21 schools awarded bachelor's degrees in nuclear engineering in 1998, and there are similar trends to be seen in Europe. For example, in Sweden, where about 45% of the electricity comes from nuclear power plants, the number of engineering graduates in the Swedish nuclear programme dropped a massive 80% between 1998 and 2000.
All of this suggests that there will be a large number of people leaving the industry in the near future. This would not be a problem if they were being replaced at an equivalent rate. However, there is clear evidence that this is not the case. According to Professor Todreas of MIT, there has been a significant decline in the number of undergraduates undertaking nuclear-related studies. The decline was most marked in the early 1990s, fell precipitiously to 1995, with a slower decline between 1995 and 2000.
In the two years since 2000, numbers have risen very slightly. There are many possible reasons for this recent increase in numbers, not all of which relate to activities within the nuclear sector. Last year, the bursting of the dot com bubble meant that a significant number of people who might have been attracted to study IT have gone elsewhere, some into nuclear studies. In addition, in the USA at least, the DoE has started to allocate funds for studies into advanced reactors, and there is now more research money available to attract undergraduates.
The US Health Physics Society (HPS) also believes there is a 'human capital' crisis in radiation safety. It says that a critical shortage exists in the supply of qualified radiation safety professionals throughout a broad spectrum of activities. The HPS is concerned that this growing shortage has the potential for unnecessary radiation exposure of workers, the general public, and the environment. Further, with expanding uses of radiation in diagnostic and therapeutic medical applications it is clear to the radiation safety community that the current imbalance between supply and demand will significantly worsen and will soon become untenable. The HPS says the shortage of qualified radiation safety professionals will compromise the rigorous oversight necessary for the continued safe use of radiation.
Although existing academic programmes could be expanded to meet the demand for graduates in health physics, it would require rapid and substantial investment.
A recent survey carried out by the HPS indicates that the present demand for radiation safety professionals is approximately 130% of supply. Demand during the next five years, which appears to be related solely to attrition, outstrips supply by nearly 160%. In addition there is a high level of attrition caused by engineers moving into other areas. This is indicative of the fierce competition that exists for graduate engineers.
There is another problem associated with the lack of new construction: the difficulty of giving graduate engineers experience. The longer this continues, the harder it will be to find sufficient people with the necessary construction skills and experience. This has caused a companies to go to considerable lengths to find ways of passing on their experience.
A spokesman for BNFL noted that there was a vast amount of decommissioning work available, but that it was very difficult to attract people to become involved in clean-up work. It was generally felt that the industry needed a significant number of new orders to attract large numbers of students. Without new orders, the public perception of the nuclear industry will be that it is slowly dying, and no-one wants to enter a dying industry. Professor Todreas noted that the numbers of students had fallen due to a decline in interest, and that stimulus and the sensation of being part of a growing industry attracted students.
There is a strong industry commitment for the next 20 years, with licence extensions and upgrading projects increasingly common. This ensures that there are a lot of engineering challenges available. However, the public perception relates the strength of the industry's growth directly with new construction. No new construction gives the impression of an industry in decline.
Interestingly, BNFL's view is that while there is a problem, it is not age-driven. This is put down to the fact that the company has for a long time been engaged in an extensive graduate recruitment programme.
Resolving the problem
The evidence, both anecdotal and analytical, is that there is a problem. Given the length of time that it takes to train nuclear engineers and provide them with experience, and given the length of time left before attrition takes a critical hold, and it is obvious that action has to be taken now to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis facing the industry.
It is also, as several people have pointed out, an excellent time for the ambitious to enter the industry. Promotion prospects for new entrants are extremely good, with the certainty of large numbers of senior posts becoming vacant over the next decade. In addition, the shortage of trained people available means that there will be considerable competition for them, and they will be able to command significant salary levels and benefits. Those companies which do not offer competitive packages will not attract recruits. It is that simple.
Within that, however, there is a broad spectrum of ideas as to what could and should be done. One interesting comment that has been made is that any company that relies on being able to get its fair share of recruits entering the industry following a general increase in interest, without being aggressively proactive in seeking out recruits, will quickly go out of business.
Different organisations have adopted different strategies to deal with the situation.