Meeting the Power Industry’s Workforce Challenges

Issue 6 and Volume 112.

By Teresa Hansen, Senior Editor

Keeping up with the nation’s growing electricity demand is creating big challenges for the power industry. According to the NERC (National Electric Reliability Corp.) 2007 Survey of Reliability Issues, an aging workforce and lack of skilled workers is the biggest challenge.

At the same time, the Edison Electric Institute predicts the United States will need 30 percent more generating capacity by 2030, while the Energy Information Administration says that figure will be 40 percent.

Either way, the figures clearly show that to meet the rising electricity demand, the U.S. power generation industry must undertake some major construction projects. Staffing such projects will not be easy, especially at a time when many experienced workers plan to retire and U.S. workers’ median age is climbing.

The onset of worker retirement exacerbates U.S. utilities’ and power producers’ workforce challenges by creating an additional need for operations and maintenance staff. According to Carnegie Mellon University’s Electricity Industry Center, about one-half (400,000) of the U.S. electric power industry workforce will be eligible to retire within the next 10 years. The Center also reports that the electric power industry has lost about 40 percent of its workforce since 1990, due mostly to deregulation.

To further complicate matters, the power generation industry is not unique and faces competition for the same limited labor pool with other industries that employ similar skill sets, such as construction, refining and manufacturing.

William D. (“Bill”) Johnson, Progress Energy’s Chairman and CEO, said his company is addressing workforce issues in two ways. First, it developed a five-year workforce plan, which Johnson said is the most complete and comprehensive in company history. The plan addresses how many new employees must be added in the next five years, what skill sets will be required and where Progress Energy hopes to find these employees. This leads to the second part of the strategy—recruiting.

Progress Energy is working with high schools, community colleges and the military in its recruiting effort. “Finding craft labor and technicians is the biggest challenge,” said Johnson. Although the utility also needs engineers, Johnson is not as worried about finding them. “They will come if we pay them well enough,” he said.

Recognizing these formidable challenges, Progress Energy and many other electric and natural gas utilities joined with their associations—Edison Electric Institute, American Gas Association, Nuclear Energy Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association—to form a non-profit consortium called the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD). CEWD was established in March 2006 and focuses on helping utilities work together to develop solutions to workforce shortages. It is the first partnership between utilities, their associations, contractors and unions to focus on the need to build a skilled workforce pipeline that will meet industry needs.

Nuclear Workforce

Nuclear utilities are well represented in CEWD because many experts predict this particular segment of the power generation industry will be the hardest hit by a shrinking labor pool and high demand for skilled workers. The U.S. Department of Labor named nuclear power as one of the high-growth sectors that is most willing to invest in training and recruiting. The statistics listed in Table 1 shed some light on why the nuclear power industry must develop an effective workforce strategy.

Click here to enlarge image

One nuclear energy company that is already investing in a comprehensive workforce program is South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Co. (STPNOC). NRG Energy Inc., a 44 percent owner of STP Units 1 and 2, was the first company to submit a construction/operating license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year and is expected to be among the first to begin construction on two new nuclear generating units—Units 3 and 4. Fluor Corp., an engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) and maintenance company, was awarded the EPC contract from Toshiba to support construction of STP Units 3 and 4. According to Ron Pitts, senior vice president of Fluor Corp.’s Nuclear Power business, approximately 3,500 specialty craft workers are expected to be employed on the project during peak construction.

Although construction on the two new units isn’t scheduled to begin until 2010 or 2011, Fluor and STPNOC are already working to recruit and train skilled labor. STPNOC is also implementing a program to recruit, hire and train the operations and maintenance staff that will be needed once the units begin commercial operation.

Fluor is recruiting from local high schools and plans to start training individuals to become craftsmen for the STP Units 3 and 4 project. “We need to ‘mine’ our natural resources and they are in the high schools,” Pitts said. Fluor thinks it can get the ”biggest bang for its buck” within a 100 mile radius of Bay City, Texas.

A big part of the program involves talking to teachers, prospective students and their parents. Many teachers are unaware of the shortage of skilled craft workers and the high salaries offered to such workers, Pitts said. “One thing we are trying to do is get the information to the high school teachers so that they can promote the program to students who are good prospects.” Most teachers and parents today think of college as the only option for post-high school education. As a result, the range of opportunities and options related to skilled craft training need to be presented to students in their early high school years, Pitts said.

Fluor plans to begin training recent high school graduates and other new recruits now so they can go to work on other jobs once they complete their training. Initially, Fluor plans to hire most of the people who successfully complete its training course to work on two of its large nearby construction job: a Total oil refinery project in Port Arthur, Texas, and Oak Grove, a 1,600 MW super-critical lignite power plant in Robertson County, Texas. The company expects most of those who are not hired by Fluor to find jobs with other companies in the south Texas area. A few will likely go to work in other parts of the country.

“Our hope and belief is that once construction begins on STP Units 3 and 4, these trained craft workers not only will have improved their skills through work experience, but those who left will want to return to south Texas to work on STP,” Pitts said. Fluor expects 75 percent to 85 percent of the individuals it trained to work on STP Units 3 and 4 once construction begins.

Fluor and STPNOC are working with Wharton County Junior College to recruit and train potential craft workers. Applicants selected for the skilled craft training program are not considered Fluor employees and receive no payment during their training. However, as students they pay nothing to participate in the training program. Once their training is complete, the individuals will be ready to enter the workforce as “sub-journeymen.” Welders, an exception, leave the program as certified welders.

In addition to recruitment, Fluor and STPNOC are currently working with the junior college to hire and certify instructors. They expect the first class of 15 to 20 students to begin this fall. The program will train welders, carpenters, instrumentation and control (I&C) technicians, electricians, iron workers and other craft.

The length of each training class will vary depending on the craft and level of proficiency needed, said Pitts. For example, it takes about 500 hours of training (classroom and hands-on) for a person to become proficient at plate welding. It generally takes another 300 hours for an individual to become proficient at pipe welding.

Fluor expects to train more than 2,000 skilled craft personnel for the STP Units 3 and 4 project, beginning within a few months and continuing through the first few months of construction.

This type of training is not new to Fluor, said Brenda Ketterman, Fluor’s senior manager for training. “We haven’t seen a project of this size in many years, but Fluor has a long history of training craft workers.” Fluor has conducted pre-employment welder training with a community college in Greenville, S.C., for more than 11 years. Students spend about 20 percent of their time in the classroom and the remaining 80 percent in hands on activities. Fluor pays for the training. When the students complete it, Fluor hires them to work at various jobs across the country.

Operations and Maintenance Training

While craft labor is in short supply and the Fluor-STPNOC training program is badly needed, STPNOC is also planning for staffing needs once the two new plants are built. “There is a long timeline that goes into training,” said Michael Marler, training manager for STPNOC Units 3 & 4. He said it takes 18 months to train an operator and three years to take a technician (for example, mechanic, I&C and electrician) from “scratch to journeyman.”

STPNOC needs staff in place 14 to 16 months before fuel is loaded to perform pre-op testing because that is the time when new, inexperienced people (especially engineers and operators) will learn a lot about how the plant works.

“There are not enough people out there with experience to wait until just before pre-op testing to begin hiring people to operate and maintain the plant,” Marler said. “We don’t want to steal employees from other operating units.”

STPNOC has performed a workforce assessment and determined it will need about 1,300 new plant operations and maintenance personnel in the next eight years. These individuals will be needed to fill positions vacated due to attrition at Units 1 and 2, as well as to fill new positions at Units 3 and 4. The company can’t train all the required individuals at once and plans to spread out the classes of 15 to 20 over the next three to four years.

Of course, somewhere between developing the training program and training the people, STPNOC must hire and develop the trainers, Marler said. Because Units 3 and 4 are first-of-a-kind reactors in the United States, a new training program must be developed before training can actually begin. “Although we don’t expect training to be a lot different than the training we’ve used for the other two units, we do expect some differences,” Marler said. STPNOC must also build a simulator to train operators, itself a three-year process.

It will be difficult and expensive to train 1,300 people, so STPNOC is partnering with several community colleges in the Bay City, Texas, area—Wharton County Junior College, Brazosport College and The Victoria College—to develop and implement the training program.

STPNOC is working with these colleges to develop an Associate of Applied Science degree in Nuclear Power Technology. The program is based on INPO’s (Institute of Nuclear Power Operation’s) ACADs (guidelines for training nuclear power plant personnel), which are fundamentals that all nuclear plant workers must know.

Marler said STPNOC was heavily involved in building the associate degree programs at these three community colleges, helping to create the curriculum and course content and providing many of the instructors.

The main benefit of this program for STPNOC is that it can exempt anyone who has earned this degree from 10 weeks of fundamental nuclear training, normally required of all new employees. The program also screens those who cannot meet the academic requirements before STPNOC hires them. In addition, Marler said it helps create a pipeline to the local workforce. After all, people with roots in the area are usually the same people who attend community college and are likely to remain in the area once they’ve completed their education.

STPNOC’s first class is scheduled to begin this fall. Work is currently underway to select 60 candidates, Marler said. STPNOC received 124 applications, of which 99 were considered viable. Company personnel are currently assessing these applicants’ skills and knowledge through skills assessment tests, which will gauge not only skills, but each applicant’s aptitude and interest in working in a nuclear power plant.

“Just because someone is smart enough to complete the training, doesn’t necessarily mean they are suited to work in a power plant,” Marler said.

Similar to the program for skilled craft labor, STPNOC will pay for tuition, fees and books for the recruits. In addition, it will provide each student with a monthly stipend while he or she completes the program, as long as the student meets the program’s minimum grade point requirement and remains a full-time student. Students are not employees of STPNOC while they complete their education.

The students in each class are expected to complete the program together. The summer after their first year, they will receive co-op assignments at STPNOC power plants. Toward the end of the summer co-op, each student and STPNOC will make a mutual decision and commitment regarding future employment.

Assuming all 60 students make it through the associate degree program and are hired by STPNOC, each will be exempt from the typical 10 weeks of required training. “Not having to pay these individuals a salary for that first 10 weeks of training more than offsets the cost of tuition, books, fees and the stipend,” Marler said. In addition, STPNOC will have a good idea of what type of employee each student will be.

STPNOC expects the first group of trainees to begin work at Units 1 and 2, where they will not only fill vacant positions, but also get on-the-job experience.

In an effort to ensure it has enough degreed engineers, STPNOC is also working with Texas A&M University to develop a nuclear certificate program for engineers. Most plants need only four or five nuclear engineers. By contrast, they need many more systems engineers, such as mechanical, civil, electrical and other disciplines. Normally, a plant hires these systems engineers and then trains them to work in a nuclear environment.

The Texas A&M program allows an engineering student or a degreed engineer to take three to five nuclear-focused classes. Once an individual completes these classes, that person is issued a nuclear certificate to go with his or her engineering degree. An engineer with the nuclear certificate is not required to complete the basic nuclear training that STPNOC, or any other nuclear power plant operator, requires of new employees.

As with the community college program, STPNOC provided much of the course content for the Texas A&M program. The university is taking STPOC’s basic engineering training program and putting it into the certificate curriculum. STPNOC also plans to provide some instructors to A&M for the program.

Marler, Pitts and Ketterman all agree that a lot of competition exists from other industries for engineers and skilled workforce, especially in Texas where the refining and petro-chemical industries are recruiting and hiring. STPNOC is taking a proactive role in recruiting and training to make sure it has the workforce it will need to provide reliable power well into the future.

According to Marler, who is on loan to STPNOC from INPO where he is an accreditation team manager, many nuclear power plant owners (such as Entergy, Duke, Progress Energy and Dominion) are evaluating and planning for future workforce needs. “These utilities know it is necessary to begin training early for their future needs and they are planning to do so,” he said.

The nuclear power industry isn’t the only segment of the power industry that faces workforce issues. That means programs such as those being implemented at STPNOC could prove effective for other power generation facilities.