Why the spotlight is on Human Resources in the Nuclear Industry

Thomas Thor News

January 23, 2017
In recent times the spotlight within the civil nuclear industry has been on political and public acceptance of nuclear energy and on the financing of costly new civil nuclear programmes. It is time now for those countries that have chosen to include nuclear power in their future energy mix, to focus their attention on the human resources question – “How to build and sustain a competent nuclear workforce?”

The UK Picture

The nuclear industry in the UK is facing a busy decade or two. On the agenda are three separate nuclear new build programmes (EDF, Horizon and NuGen), lifetime extensions within the existing fleet and a continuation of substantial decommissioning projects. In addition, the civil nuclear industry is likely to face competition for the same resources from the defence sector as there are major submarine projects scheduled for the same period.

Predictions made by organisations including the National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN) suggest that demand for skilled professionals in nuclear will increase considerably in the next 15 years and that more needs to be done to stimulate the supply of such professionals. The fact that the UK nuclear industry stalled, in terms of hiring, for the 20 years up to 2008 means that the average age in the industry is around 53 and many of the most experienced and valuable workers in the industry will reach retirement age just as demand for their skills is increasing. All of the above factors point to a potential ‘’perfect storm’’ in terms of human resources in the UK. The potential effects of this could include rising salaries and heightened competition for scarce resources, with a worst case scenario of projects that overrun their schedule and cost predictions, because of a lack of the right skills at a specific point in time.
Fortunately, there are multiple sources that the UK nuclear industry can tap in to in order to find the people it needs:

Training and development of new graduates and apprentices – the long term nature of nuclear projects offers real career prospects to graduates and apprentices. In anticipation of increasing work, the industry and their supply chain have been hiring in earnest since around 2008. One of the positive side effects of the delay in nuclear new build is that these recent hires have had more time to develop and gain experience. Many organisations have recently scaled back graduate intakes to save costs in response to delays in the nuclear new build programmes. More certainty around projects and project time scales would definitely help to give organisations the confidence to keep hiring graduates.
Attracting people from other industries – there is a wealth of talented engineers, technicians and project professionals out there with the skills that the nuclear industry needs. There are tens of thousands of such people from the UK that work abroad because that is where the challenging projects are to be found. The nuclear industry has an opportunity to give these people the work that they are looking for without having to travel abroad. There is also a large pool of professionals working in high safety culture industries in the UK such as oil and gas or rail that could easily convert to the nuclear industry.

Employing retirees as mentors and trainers – skills transfer is a hot topic within the nuclear industry and the approaching wave of retirees offers a once in a lifetime opportunity. Commitment to the industry and a sense of solidarity that is common amongst nuclear professionals means that they are generally open to interesting consulting and skills transfer work after retirement. Offering flexible, deliverables-based or part time contracts increases the desirability of the work in the eyes of retirees.
Championing diversity – in an industry predominantly consisting of men aged between 40-60, there are three major opportunities to diversity the workforce: the young generation, women and foreign nationals. Hiring and nurturing the young generation is something the nuclear industry already does well, as evidenced by the active Young Generation Networks (YGNs) that exist in the UK and many other countries. It would make sense for the industry to put as much effort in to attracting women (Women in Nuclear is a great reference point) and to attracting foreign nationals with rare skills to relocate to the UK. Combining industry backing of diversity with individual policies and practices at organisation level would achieve the best results.
An International Perspective

Many other developed nuclear countries, such as Canada and the US, are in a similar position to the UK – aging workforce, decommissioning projects planned and nuclear new build happening or on the horizon. In addition there are several ‘’newcomer countries’’, such as the UAE and Poland, that are building nuclear power plants for the first time and are drawing from the international pool of expertise. The same opportunities exist for these countries as outlined for the UK, with some additional benefits.
Developed nuclear countries, such as the UK, could see the migration of valuable skilled individuals to other countries as a drain on resource, when in fact the benefits outweigh the costs. People that go to work abroad nearly always come home, and when they do they bring up to date project and technology experience with them, along with exposure to other cultures and ways of working. This serves to greatly enhance the value they can provide, as well as giving them valuable skills to transfer to others.
The nuclear supply chain is a global one, and the increasing globalisation of the nuclear industry means that this supply chain can move ever more efficiently from one part of the world to another, delivering value and developing as it goes. As many graduates are drawn to careers with international prospects, this globalisation presents another opportunity to attract and retain young talent.
Success Factors

There are some factors that will clearly make the difference in terms of developing a sustainable and competent global nuclear workforce in the coming decades.

  1. Accurate data gathering and information – the lack of up to date and accurate data relating to demand and supply of human resources in nuclear is one of the reasons that many countries are slow to react. There is a general acceptance that the nuclear industry worldwide will face a “human resources squeeze” in the coming decades, but quality data on an international scale is not readily available (organisations such as EHRO-N, the European Commission’s Human Resource Observatory for Nuclear, are making some headway in this area). Accurate global data would provide industry leaders with the evidence necessary to invest the time and resources to address the future.
  2. Retention – retaining qualified personnel, especially those with nuclear specific skills, is arguably more important than attracting them in the first place. Retention strategy, like diversity strategy, can be promoted at an industry level and developed and implemented at an individual organisation level. Providing clear and motivating career paths, international opportunities, healthy working environments, competitive remuneration and benefits packages and quality training and development are all features of a good retention strategy.
  3. Promoting nuclear as a career choice – despite having a high profile the nuclear industry is not as prominent as it could be in the minds of graduates or mid-career professionals considering their future career path. The basic fundamentals of the offering are sound – long term opportunity, high technology engineering, mega projects, contribution to carbon free energy production, a hugely supportive and cooperative working environment, a truly global industry etc etc. The opportunities to promote the industry are present, and some nuclear newcomer countries such as the UAE provide great examples where recent industry promotion has positioned civil nuclear a prestigious industry in which to work. Countries such as the UK can learn from such examples when reinvigorating their promotion efforts.
  4. International cooperation – the volume and diversity of international organisations working in consortia to deliver projects in the global nuclear industry is world class, and an absolute credit to the industry. A continuation and escalation of this cooperation is a major success factor in relation to avoiding the ‘’human resource squeeze’’ in nuclear. Bringing together different groups of people and skills creates value, and the consortia become more efficient and effective at delivering projects with every one they complete. Organisations such as the WNA, WANO and INPO are excellent vehicles for promoting international cooperation and information sharing.
  5. Diversity – in an environment where there is an accepted anticipation of a skills shortage, diversity provides answers. The three primary options for diversity – the young generation, women and foreign nationals – deserve individual attention from industry leaders and it will not be possible to develop the world’s civil nuclear power programme in the coming decades without them.

In summary, it seems that the leaders of the nuclear industry have been largely preoccupied with political and financial matters in recent times – and with good justification. Now that these hurdles have been overcome in many cases, the important matter of human resources can take centre stage. The foundations have been laid and there are so many examples of best practice in the nuclear industry in areas such as attracting the young generation and international cooperation. The industry can now build on these successes by really promoting the opportunity that has been created for others to join the industry and driving through the transition to a diverse and international workforce. The spotlight is on the civil nuclear industry now and on human resources in particular. The actions taken relating to human resource strategy in the next 5 years will have a profound effect on the shape of the industry in the decades to come.

Written by Callum Thomas, CEO of Thomas Thor Associates, a leading recruitment and executive search organisation in the global nuclear industry.

– See more at: https://www.thomas-thor.com/blog/blog-52474854463#sthash.k0tawL6x.dpuf

Published by Thomas Thor

Thomas Thor Associates is a consulting and recruitment organisation providing services to the global nuclear sector. We represent nuclear industry experts and provide them to our clients for either freelance contract assignments or permanent staff positions.

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