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Nuclear Industry Can Lead a Revival in Skilled Labor and Manufacturing in the United States

Rod Adams's picture
President and CEO Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
  • Member since 2006
  • 969 items added with 297,127 views
  • Nov 15, 2010

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the American Nuclear Society and the North American Young Generation in Nuclear have been investing time and money into focused workforce development programs for several years. The people leading the effort are taking the action to ensure that there are educated and trained people who are ready to meet the challenge of continuing to reliably operate and maintain our existing fleet of 104 nuclear reactors at the same time that we are reestablishing our nuclear plant manufacturing and construction industry.

The below is an op-ed describing the effort by one of its leaders.

Nuclear Industry Workforce Education Revitalizes Skilled Labor and Manufacturing Careers

By Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides
North American Young Generation

In 1950 manufacturing accounted for more than 30 percent of all U.S. employment. These skilled labor careers provided an unprecedented standard of living for more than two decades following the end of World War II, allowing millions of Americans to purchase homes and autos and pay for their children to go to college.

By 2006, manufacturing employment shrunk to a mere 10 percent of U.S. employment and with it the bulk of America’s well-paying skilled labor careers. Prognosticators predicted manufacturing’s ultimate demise as a significant driver of the American economy. But a look at the U.S. nuclear industry tells a different story: a narrative where job growth in the skilled trades is on an upward trend and the industry can serve as a role model for the revitalization of the U.S. manufacturing sector through the creation of new careers and economic expansion. In fact, it already has.

At this point 13 license applications for up to 22 new reactors have been filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the industry expects four-to-eight new plants to be operating by the end of the decade. Construction activities already have begun at plant sites in Georgia and South Carolina. As a consequence, over the past three years more than 15,000 careers, not just jobs, have been created as the nuclear industry has invested over $4 billion in new nuclear plant development. Plans call for the investment of another $8 billion to be in position to supply the materials needed to begin large-scale construction in 2011-2012. Many of these careers don’t require a college degree, but have earnings potential that equals, and even exceeds, that of college graduates. Teachers can play an instrumental part in creating awareness among their students of these careers.

K-12 educators should incorporate what we call “Energy Literacy” into their teaching plans and thus can play a significant role in encouraging their students to consider the career possibilities as electrical and mechanical technicians, radiation monitors, health physicists and engineers of all kinds. The nuclear industry has resources to help educators explain to students what career opportunities are available in nuclear power. For example, FREE curriculum and lesson plans are available from groups such as the National Education Foundation and The Ford Foundation on all sectors of energy production including nuclear power. The industry offers expert speakers from diverse nuclear-oriented groups including Women in Nuclear, the North American Young Generation in Nuclear and the American Nuclear Society, and there is a successful nuclear energy mentoring program known as Power Set that could be replicated around the country.

But is there proof of a revival in the American nuclear industry that warrants teachers’ interest? You bet there is.

For example, Alstom just opened a new $300 million turbine manufacturing facility in Tennessee to supply turbines for use in North American power plants; Shaw Modular Solutions constructed a 410,000-square-foot nuclear modernization facility in Louisiana to assemble structural, piping, equipment and other modules for new nuclear plants that will employ 700 to 1,400 assembly line and skilled technical workers at full capacity. AREVA and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding broke ground last summer on a $360-million manufacturing and engineering facility in Newport News, Va., that will manufacture heavy components such as reactor vessels, steam generators and pressurizers. Expected to open in 2012, this facility will create more than 500 skilled hourly and salaried careers. And this is only the beginning.

Over the next five years, 38 percent of the current nuclear industry work force employed at the nation’s 104 operating plant will be eligible for retirement, leaving a shortfall of more than 25,000 skilled workers. In addition, each new nuclear plant will create up to 2,400 temporary and highly-paid positions over the five-year construction period and 400-to-800 new permanent careers.

Much as a major league baseball team must build a pipeline of young players in their farm system years in advance so they’ll be ready to replace retiring players, so must the nuclear industry replenish its work force to avoid any skills shortage and be ready for expansion. The nuclear industry realized this trend years ago and is doing just that.

The industry is keeping close track of the job openings and student enrollments to ensure that the pipeline of new workers fits the number of careers available. The industry has set up partnerships with 43 community colleges across the country and implemented what’s known as a uniform curriculum program to ensure that the proper educating and training of the next generation of nuclear industry workers is done in a cohesive manner. This past May, the first graduates of this program at Chattanooga State and Salem Community College in New Jersey moved into careers with average salaries ranging from $66,000-to-$72,000 a year. Since nuclear plants operate for up to 60 years, it’s as close to a lifetime guarantee of employment as possible.

The world has changed dramatically since the golden age of U.S. manufacturing and the high percentage of skilled labor and blue collar careers of the 1950s through the ‘70s. But the revitalization of the nuclear industry in America, where we expect to see dozens of new plants built over the next two decades, offers proof that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of manufacturing’s death in the United States are greatly exaggerated.

Though I fully support Elizabeth and her colleagues in their efforts to encourage nuclear and technical training efforts, my hope is that the industry leaders who sometimes look no further than their next quarterly earnings call with analysts recognize that kindling a new fire takes focused attention. The nascent workforce development programs are beginning to pay off with well-trained and motivated young people at a time when the industry really needs them to gain experience and build upon their academic knowledge.

If the leaders allow an interruption in hiring programs or determine that it makes the P&L look better to lay off some people for a few quarters, the momentum will reverse and be difficult to recover. The kinds of hard working, steady, motivated, people with high levels of integrity that the nuclear industry has worked hard to attract will find plenty of opportunities in other lines of work. If they feel betrayed because they invested 4-8 years of hard academic endeavor with the promise of good job opportunities and end up treading water for a few months after graduation, it will be hard to encourage them to return to the industry that betrayed them.

Nuclear industry leaders should follow the lead of ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron. None of those oil and gas majors are acting like companies that believe that natural gas prices are going to be low for a long period of time. If they believed that line, they would not be spending tens of billions to develop more capacity to extract and deliver natural gas. They are looking past the current market situation, knowing that building the physical capacity to supply natural gas energy – like building the human intellectual capacity needed to supply nuclear energy – requires patience and continued investment. Company leaders need to make the case for these investments to overcome the “advice” of short term fund managers who have no idea how long the lead times can be in the energy business.

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