Where are the nuclear engineers?

Research shows that there will be a significant shortfall in graduates entering the nuclear power industry by the decade 2015-2025. S&YP discusses the biggest challenge facing the nuclear industry.

Nuclear is big news. It's at the crux of energy industry strategy, with the UK government commitment to creating 100,000 jobs in the nuclear sector. Worldwide, 436 power reactors currently contribute 15 per cent of the world's energy and the pace of development is increasing. Over 40 new reactors are under construction, 106 are in planning and 266 are being proposed. This is an industry in transformation.

There's something circular about this trend. Back in the 1950s, the UK was home to a golden period for the nuclear industry. A world-class engineering capability grew, with the best minds and cutting-edge skills contributing.

However, concerns around nuclear safety, public scepticism and a lack of political will led to a reduction in investment in the nuclear industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

What was the result? The teaching of nuclear engineering in the UK fell into decline. A focus on service industries meant that engineering across the board became a less attractive option for graduates. We now see a situation where only 40,000 new engineers enter the workforce every year. Just 13 per cent of graduates leave university with science, technology, engineering or maths degrees.

Why is this so ominous for the nuclear industry? The reality is that between 2015 and 2025, the UK could face a crucial skills shortage. Power supplies may become less reliable and more expensive. That's a problem for everyone and one that needs to be addressed urgently.

Statistics show that the UK needs 25 per cent of graduates to leave universities with relevant degrees to service the predicted growth in jobs in the nuclear industry. This problem is compounded by the ageing population of the current workforce in the nuclear industry. Some 40 per cent of the National Grid workforce will reach retirement age over the next 15 years. By 2025, almost half of the overall nuclear workforce in Cumbria will have retired.

Who will fill their shoes during a period of predicted immense growth in this industry? If the problem is of concern on a national level, it's crystalised in Cumbria. It has the largest nuclear workforce in the UK and lies at the heart of the industry, with approximately 10,000 potential new jobs set to be created.

So what measures are companies taking to combat this skills gap? McKenzie Douglas canvased the views of an extensive network of industry contacts to get their opinions on the situation.

Mark Watters, nuclear director at Doosan Babcock explained their approach:

'The nuclear skills shortage is a concern. Every year we have an intake of 70 apprentices and 50-60 graduates. We've developed strong programmes to grow senior leadership capabilities. We take our local social responsibility seriously and encourage permanent recruitment, which attracts new people to settle in West Cumbria.'

Andy Hooper, managing director at Westlakes Engineering:

'Our workforce is young. We spend a lot of time and effort on training people in fact we recently won an award from the CN Group for our training and development programme. We bring local people from other industries into our business, in addition to sponsoring local students through university. We're acting now through training and working with a number of nuclear consultants who can impart their knowledge to the younger workforce.'

Mike Devine, UK operations pesource manager, Project Time and Cost UK Ltd. summarised the current dilemma:

'There is an ageing work force and few young people are entering the ranks. Most of the universities that previously offered nuclear engineering shut down their programmes during the dark age of the industry, when all new nuclear construction was pretty much halted in the UK.

'Global warming and the need to reduce CO2 emissions came to the rescue. Environmentalists have found themselves in a quandary; they now find that alternative sources of generation cannot provide the electricity required to meet our needs. Some have come to support the same nuclear industry that they preached and protested against in the 1980s and 1990s.

'We've established our own training system called PT&C University to help with continuing education for our employees. We provide reimbursement for university and other training/degrees. We encourage professional development and certifications to further our employees' knowledge base. We try to hire as many young people as possible to bring them up through the ranks before the older employees retire.'

Bill Harper, HR resource manager, Sellafield observed:

'The Sellafield workforce has been built up over many years. We've continued to bring in large numbers of apprentices and graduates over the years to keep the workforce replenished. The average age across Sellafield is 45, which is quite healthy. As a business we've got good staff retention, with a number of people joining as apprentices or graduates and staying for their whole career.

'It isn't an accident that we have a healthy skills pipeline in place. It's been through Sellafield planning for the future.

'Over the last few years, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) have led with some tremendous skills investments, such as Energus, which further strengthens the position.

'The nuclear skills shortage needs to be kept in perspective. For nuclear new build, the components will be brought off the shelf, so there will not be a big need for nuclear specialists, but for a larger number of more generally qualified engineers and scientists.'

Vince Cane, principal consultant at Nuclear Technologies PLC:

'You need to recognise the impact new nuclear build is going to have. A new, shiny, well-funded industry is going to be very attractive to a lot of people. All of this points very clearly to the fact that a career in nuclear is now a very attractive proposition, we just need to get the message into schools, colleges and universities.'

Evan Wright, industry specialist, adviser to McKenzie Douglas and director of Silver Stream Business Services and Energy Coast Consulting:

'For current UK operations, decommissioning and power generation, there are sufficient skilled people in most disciplines to meet the need, although the age profile is quite high.

Nonetheless we are in danger of losing some of what we already have if funding constrains the decommissioning and waste management programmes. Additionally the recession means that good companies and people from other sectors are now considering entry into the nuclear market.

'For nuclear new build, there will be a high demand for project leaders, construction managers, back-room support functions and experienced engineers in all disciplines. The skills don't necessarily all need to be nuclear based and good people could be brought in to nuclear new build from a number of sectors.

'The thrust of it is this: currently we have enough people but we must continue to recruit and train young people. New build will stretch us but, to build new nuclear power stations, it's not essential that all the resource is nuclear experienced.'

What does this mean for those looking to move within the nuclear industry or into the sector?

At McKenzie Douglas, we believe that the nuclear industry is very buoyant, especially for those people based in Cumbria. With three new builds on the horizon and the existence of an agreement with the National Grid to have 10GW of power coming out of Cumbria by 2025, there has never been such an exciting time to be involved.

There is much talk around the importance of encouraging Cumbria's youth to get involved with the nuclear industry through courses and apprenticeships. This is essential for the future of Cumbria to ensure we embrace the opportunities offered to us.

It's equally evident that, to some extent, there is going to be a shortage of fully skilled nuclear engineers and specialists between 2015-25. There are young people in training, but they will not be ready to take over from senior professionals in that timeframe.

It's absolutely essential to plan ahead. Companies need to identify the key strategic positions they need to fill to maximise the potential opportunities in the pipeline, and they need to do it sooner rather than later.

We'd also advise companies to look laterally at people from different but comparable sectors such as oil & gas and pharmaceuticals and then train them within the nuclear industry. Think more strategically about your recruitment options, as Evan Wright suggests.

And if you're thinking about moving into the industry? Surely you need no more encouragement than these words from Mike Devine from Project Time and Cost.

'I think that any young person that is interested in writing their own ticket for the future should start nuclear engineering and physics training now. They could name their salary and get it.'

Emma-Jayne Gooch is recruitment manager at energy headhunting firm McKenzie Douglas

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