Young people drawn to nuclear power out of sense of social obligation

By Denver Nicks, Associate Editor, Nuclear Power International

Young people are drawn to careers in nuclear energy for sundry reasons, but at the most basic level they all boil down to one: a desire to make the world a better place.

That message undergirded a panel discussion on “Integration and Retention of the Next Generation” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society.

“I picked nuclear engineering for environmental impact reasons,” said Rachel Slaybaugh, a senior engineer at the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory who is moving back to academia at Berkley in next year. A committed environmentalist, while in school she said she learned that there was an existing, emissions-free source of baseload energy and she wanted to be a part of bringing it to the world.

“I’m a nuclear engineer because I’m an environmentalist,” said Kati Austgen, a project manager in the new plant licensing division of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“I couldn’t get over it. The fact that a little tiny pellet the size of my pinky can replace a ton of coal,” said Art Wharton of Westinghouse (who allegedly has a Westinghouse tattoo to prove it), “is just really outstanding to me. As a young kid I was a Boy Scout and they taught me to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. It really appealed to the values that I learned as I grew up, just being a good steward of the earth.”

As to the question of how to retain talent in the nuclear field, the assembled young professionals had plenty of practical advice (e.g. new laptops are appreciated if travel is expected, flexibility is highly valued) but the central message was two-fold. First, the generation entering the nuclear industry today doesn’t expect to stay at the same company through an entire career and will happily make a change if better opportunities arise elsewhere. Often there is nothing to be done about this fact of the new economy. Second, what young nuclear professionals want most of all is a sense of making progress along a clear career trajectory, and here is where a current employer can have an impact on whether or not an employee sticks around.

Whereas mentoring programs and scheduled discussions about goals and opportunities are built into many programs geared toward students, too often, it seems, young professionals tend to fall through the cracks. “The industry is lacking that conversation with people who have started and are in their careers,” said audience member Laura Hermann, a senior vice president at the Potomac Communications Group.

“Last I checked, successful people don’t wait for things to fall in their lap,” said Joe McGuiness, a supervisor at Florida Power and Light. Companies that don’t want to lose talent should have regular career development conversations, he said, “asking again and again and again: Where do you want to go next? What do you want to do?”

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