By Teresa Hansen, Senior Editor
By now, we’ve all heard at least once or twice the unnerving statistics related to the aging workforce in the power generation industry, particularly the nuclear power industry. Although the numbers vary slightly from source to source, according to recent Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) statistics, 26 percent of the engineers in the nuclear energy industry will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. More than half will be eligible for retirement in 10 years. The NEI also reports that the average nuclear engineer’s age is 48 and many engineers in the nuclear industry are 55 years old or older.
Some potentially good news is that undergraduate enrollment in nuclear engineering has increased by 3 percent in the past seven years. Unfortunately, undergraduate and graduate enrollment remains far behind where it was 15 years ago.
This somewhat bleak outlook on the nuclear industry workforce comes at a time when the industry is experiencing a “renaissance.” Simply to maintain the current fleet of nuclear generating plants, the industry will be searching for tens of thousands of new workers over the next decade. Add to that the number of engineering and technical workers who will be needed to support the nuclear renaissance and, although predictions vary greatly, the total number of new recruits is staggering.
Of course, the nuclear industry and power generation industry in general are not unique. Many industries that count on engineers and technical personnel face similar challenges, so the competition to attract and retain this precious human commodity is fierce.
Clearly, the nuclear energy industry faces a daunting task when it comes to recruiting and retaining its workforce. A first-of-a-kind benchmarking study by the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN) may provide some insight into what attracts young professionals.
The NA-YGN was formed in 1999 to promote nuclear science and technology, particularly from the perspective of a young professional. The organization conducted an on-line survey, which was available to some 2,100 NA-YGN members. Of those, 388 responded (approximately 18.5 percent). NA-YGN members who completed the survey comprise the nuclear workforce at North American utilities, corporations, government agencies and research facilities.
The survey emphasized the factors that influence young professionals’ recruitment and development. Although salary was important (the survey pegged the average starting at $52,866), pay was not the top criteria for recruits in accepting a job offer. Instead, 91 percent of the young professionals completing the survey listed location as their number one deciding factor. Salary ranked second with 68 percent of the vote. Job description and company reputation/stability (33 percent each) followed in third and fourth places.
In addition, according to NA-YGN’s survey result summary, the respondents indicated that an employer’s mentoring, technical training, non-technical training and educational reimbursement programs were also highly important in their job selection process. Technical training and educational reimbursement programs both positively influenced job acceptance decisions. In most cases, these programs “strongly” or “moderately” influenced the decision to accept employment more often than not. Most of the survey respondent’s employers offer an educational reimbursement program and 59 percent of the survey respondents either had or plan to participate in that program.
The survey also showed that at least half of all respondents took part in a work-study program. Participation, however, did not positively affect starting salaries in any of the job functions examined.
Some of the open-ended response questions may offer prospective employers the most insightful information. In particular, young professionals feel they are unable to achieve supervisory roles because of the large number of baby boomers who remain in the nuclear workforce. In addition, young professionals showed concern that developmental opportunities are available only to those individuals willing to move across departments.
These responses seem to indicate that today’s new job market entrants will not be content with the once common practice of advancing based on seniority and/or waiting for someone in the hierarchy to retire or move to another position. Today’s young professionals want rewarding careers that allow them to be a meaningful contributor early on and be rewarded for those contributions with career advancement opportunities.
The responses also indicate that young professionals want opportunities to advance their educations and enhance their knowledge, all while earning a reasonable salary and living in a “desirable” location. And, given the high demand for well-educated engineers and highly-trained technical personnel, employers will probably do their best to meet these expectations. If not, they are likely going to be understaffed.
More details from the NA-YGN survey are available at the organization’s Web site: www.na-ygn.org.