Nuclear, Reactors

Addressing the Age Gap in Nuclear Power Generation

Issue 1 and Volume 7.

By Justin Martino, Associate Editor

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), more than 120,000 people work in the U.S. nuclear power industry, with 38 percent of them set to retire within the next few years. In an industry where knowledge and experience can prove invaluable, many companies are looking at ways to offset that loss, whether it is through training or the use of expert systems.

The issue of retaining the current knowledge base not only concerns the companies that employ nuclear workers, but also the young workers themselves.

“This is something we’ve recognized for a long time,” said Christine Csizmadia, president of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NAYGN). “That’s something we’re constantly trying to address and solve. We don’t have a silver bullet, but that’s something we’re definitely concerned with.”

NAYGN, which was formed in 1997, looks for ways to help train a workforce that could see its average age drop drastically in the next 10 years as workers retire and are replaced by younger employees. One of the organization’s main targets is knowledge transfer, Csizmadia said.

With 38 percent of the nuclear power industry workforce expected to retire in the next few years, companies are looking at ways to recruit new employees to fill the employment vacancies. Photo courtesy NEI.
With 38 percent of the nuclear power industry workforce expected to retire in the next few years, companies are looking at ways to recruit new employees to fill the employment vacancies. Photo courtesy NEI.

The group works to hit that target through a variety of methods. A professional development chair is included on the leadership team to ensure members have opportunities to learn and grow in the industry, Csizmadia said. Each year, NAYGN hosts a professional development conference held in conjunction with NEI’s Nuclear Energy Assembly.

“Members who are sent by their company to this conference get workshops and seminars on public speaking, communication, knowledge transfer, how to benchmark – different things you don’t necessarily get to do when you’re working in a reactor operations room,” she said. “We try to give them as much of that type of exposure as we can.”

Csizmadia also works as the manager of grassroots and outreach programs at NEI, but stresses that the members of NAYGN come from many different companies in the industry. The organization is itself a grassroots organization, and has been able to accomplish as much as it has through the generosity of companies that sponsor it, Csizmadia said.

“Our sponsors are incredibly generous, and we are very thankful they have seen our worth and have continued to support us and encourage us to be creative in trying to problem solve issues like knowledge transfer,” she said.

While knowledge transfer is one of the issues the industry is looking into when it comes to its work force, another problem is finding young employees to replace those who are retiring. To help bring more employees into the workforce, the U.S. nuclear industry launched the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program in 2007, a standardized certificate program that provides training for jobs at nuclear plants. According to a report from NEI released last summer, there are 1,500 students enrolled at 35 community colleges who are planning on entering the nuclear industry.

According to the NEI, the industry hired nearly 15,000 people between 2009 and 2012, and the data suggest the industry has sufficient engineers and operators to continue running the facilities as the workforce retires. The institute’s sixth biennial workforce pipeline survey, conducted in February 2013, showed that enrollment in the nuclear technology programs has grown from 100 in 2008 to 1,500 at the time of the survey, with the programs graduating nearly 500 students in 2012.

Although organizations like NAYGN provide resources for training employees once they’re in the workforce, NEI senior media relations manager Mitch Singer said many companies also have their own in-house leadership development programs.

In addition, companies are not hesitant to provide responsibility to a person who has proven to be capable.

“They do not worry about the age of someone when it comes to giving them responsibility,” Singer said. “They basically say if they’re qualified, they don’t care how young they are. They will give them the responsibility, and they will mentor them in-house with certain leadership programs.”

The retirements are also affecting the craft side of a nuclear plant, according to Guy Starr, president of DZ Atlantic, a Day & Zimmermann company. Once again, preparation and recruitment has been important in dealing with the problem.

“I know retirements are predicted in 2016,” Starr said. “We were predicting it four years earlier than that and have really prepared for this. We have a full-time director for craft resources and training whose sole purpose is to get the message out about the great, high-paying jobs in the nuclear industry for craft. He’s in front of high school students quite a bit, because the way that we look at it, a lot of people don’t necessarily know what they want to do when they get out of high school. Some people don’t have the money necessary to go to a university and some people just don’t want to go to a university, so we’re offering them an option, and it’s a high-paying option.”

Organizations like North American Young Generation in Nuclear provide outside opportunities for new members of the nuclear industry to learn more about the field. Photo courtesy NAYGN
Organizations like North American Young Generation in Nuclear provide outside opportunities for new members of the nuclear industry to learn more about the field. Photo courtesy NAYGN

Starr said the company is also recruiting returning members of the U.S. military. Its Atlantic organization has offices in Norfolk, Va., which is home to the largest Navy base in the world, allowing it to recruit former Navy forces who worked in the nuclear field.

Once the workers have been recruited, Starr said the company focuses on training the employees. Although Day & Zimmermann does not have a formalized mentoring program for its craft employees, Starr said when an employee who is new to nuclear is brought into a facility, he or she is teamed with a seasoned veteran employee. The engineering group also has a young professionals group that invites experienced employees to speak and help provide its members with other avenues of self-learning.

“One of the things I think is very important for people to understand is we don’t necessarily have a labor shortage in this country,” Starr said. “We have a shortage of skilled labor. There are plenty of people out there who can do this work. We just need to get them trained, and that’s what we’ve been focused on for the past 10 years.

“It’s an industry-wide issue, and it’s not going to be solved by any one company. It’s going to be solved by the industry.”

The industry is responding. With increased recruitment and various programs to train the new employees, young employees in the nuclear industry, like Csizmadia, are working to retain the knowledge base and experience currently in the field.

“We don’t want to lose the knowledge that already exists,” she said. “We want to make sure we capture it, so it’s something we take very seriously. It’s something we want to get the reins on as much as we can before we see a lot of these folks retire. We’re building new reactors right now, and we need to be sure we know what we’re doing.”

More Nuclear Power Internaional Issue Articles
Nuclear Power Internaional Issue Archives
View Power Generation Articles on PennEnergy.com