Industry Must Address Workforce Issues

Issue 9 and Volume 110.

By John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor

The birth rate in the U.S. is just above the replacement level, with population growth coming mostly from immigration. This is a world-wide phenomenon, with Western Europe experiencing birth rates so low that its population may decline by as much as one-third in a generation. Demographers note that this means the populations are aging, and that soon there will be only two U.S. workers for each retiree on Social Security. Because of the aging workforce, companies are having trouble maintaining adequate technical expertise as their experienced employees retire. The U.S. nuclear industry has this aging workforce problem, further exacerbated by the stagnant state of the industry over the past 30 years. What will happen if there is a nuclear resurgence requiring additional professionals to staff it?

This column has addressed the question of nuclear personnel shortages several times over the past six years. In addition to the need for operating nuclear plants to replenish their workforces due to natural attrition, I have been concerned about staffing the next generation of nuclear plants. Thus far, it has been a needless concern. I am an incurable optimist, however, and I continue to see hopeful signs for a nuclear power renaissance. To my surprise, a recent Merrill Lynch publication told the firm’s clients, “We continue to be bullish on nuclear utilities.” The analyst cites environmental pressures on coal plants, plus global warming fears, as two factors working in favor of nuclear plants. National energy policy is also favorable, as evidenced by President Bush’s ringing endorsement of nuclear power, including strong support for the Yucca Mountain waste repository, during his recent visit to the Limerick plant. Perhaps most significantly, NRG recently placed a tentative order for a new Texas-located boiling water reactor with a formal order expected as early as next year. Maybe the nuclear resurgence really is just around the corner … this time.

So, given the aging nuclear workforce, and given the possible need for substantially more qualified workers should a nuclear boom occur, what is the prognosis? Four years ago the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) examined this issue in some detail. The NEI findings were sobering and, in some cases, somewhat surprising. Little has changed since the NEI survey, except for a greater urgency to deal with the problem, so the results are worth repeating here.

The NEI study estimates that nuclear plants will need to add about 29,000 new workers between 2002 and 2015. In addition to that, suppliers of nuclear industry goods and services will require twice that number, bringing the total demand to an estimated 90,000 nuclear professionals over the next 10 years. The study found indications that there will be enough electrical and mechanical engineers available, but NEI predicts serious shortages of nuclear engineers and health physicists.

Some companies are aggressively addressing the shortages of skilled personnel. FirstEnergy established a nuclear technology program at an Ohio community college several years ago, and now that program is starting to graduate technologists, all of whom have found jobs waiting for them at FirstEnergy plants. Similarly, AmerenUE’s Callaway plant has provided the impetus for a nuclear technology program at a nearby community college in Missouri. The head of that program encourages student enrollment by noting significant job prospects nearby: the school is strategically located within an eight-hour drive of 25 nuclear power plants.

NEI notes that there are currently 51 colleges and universities offering nuclear- and health physics-related academic programs of some sort. It also notes that nuclear industry jobs typically pay well, so there is financial inducement for students to seriously consider nuclear careers. But how does one overcome the image that the industry has no future? In spite of the fact that the U.S. economy is booming, the impressionable student is besieged with news stories about huge layoffs in mature industries such as the automobile industry and in companies involved in mergers and buyouts. And it is easy to make the connection that the power business is both a mature industry and one involved in mergers and buyouts.

It seems to me there must be a two-pronged approach to ensuring an adequate number of technically trained people for the nuclear industry’s needs. First, industry professionals should be available to help faculty members in nuclear-related programs actively recruit students by personal contacts that present the nuclear industry as a growth business with a bright future. (That is how I viewed the industry when I decided to study nuclear engineering 45 years ago.) Maybe some scholarship-type inducements also could be provided. Second, decision-makers in nuclear-related businesses should staff for the long term. That means they “bust” their personnel budgets by overstaffing their organizations, thus making opportunities for young engineers and technicians to learn the business from the “old pros” before those people go out the door into retirement.

Nobody can guarantee this approach will work, of course. But it seems worth a try.