Take some ten-year-olds and a newspaper27 April 2017
Rebecca Smale, senior mechanical engineer, and Mark Salisbury, training manager, at Horizon, discuss how to attract people into the industry.
It is difficult to attract people into science and engineering in the nuclear industry. There are skills shortages, made worse by the skills lost as people retire. The industry must keep up to date with emerging technologies of all types, and ensure that there is a regular flow of new engineers to enable a smooth transfer of skills and knowledge. Ensuring young people join the industry is crucial and many companies are making considerable effort to attract them. Horizon Nuclear Power, a UK energy company developing new-build nuclear power stations in Anglesey and Gloucestershire, has developed strong links with local schools and colleges.
The industry faces a huge challenge in keeping up with emerging technology. There is often a generational difference in technical skills. Older engineers learned their skills before the growth of information and communications technology, whereas younger engineers have grown up with it.
There is a large and growing need for new recruits with skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (so-called STEM subjects). It can be difficult to attract people to study these subjects, and it is important for the development of the industry first to enthuse students about them, and then to encourage them to use those subjects in the nuclear industry.
There are three educational stages at which a company can address its attempts to develop new engineers. These are:
- Young children (ages 7-12).
- Young teenagers (ages 13-16).
- Young adults (ages 17-21).
With the first group, the objective is predominantly to make the children enthusiastic about science and engineering. Rebecca Smale, a senior mechanical engineer at Horizon Nuclear Power, and winner of the 2016 Nuclear Institute’s Young Generation Network Speaking Competition, said that it was important to make the activities something that they could relate to their own lives. The activities have to get the children involved.
She gave an example of how she was able to teach nuclear fission to a class of 10-year-olds. She laid out a newspaper on the floor, and got as many children as possible to stand on it. This represented an atom, and the children were the protons and neutrons. When the newspaper was torn in half, some of the children could no longer stand on one piece, and the “atom” split.
Chain reactions can be demonstrated using dominoes. They are lined up and toppled sequentially by one falling and knocking over the next.
At this age, the objective is simply to enthuse the children and give them a love of science. “You have to blow their minds and catch their imagination. You have to make it relevant and applicable to their lives. The activities have to be both interactive and fun,” she said.
Smale added that such activities need not be limited to the school environment. She gave as an example the Girl Guide group she ran, where she found that it was possible to run fun activities.
Smale also described how she explains the make-up of an atom to young school children. She uses using the analogy of a football in the middle of a sport stadium. The football represents the nucleus of an atom, where all the protons and neutrons are located. The electrons spin about the nucleus, and these circle at the edge of the stadium. This is a very visual indication to the students of how much empty space is present in an atom, and it is an image they can relate to.
Children of this age are relatively easy to enthuse. Things tend to be new and different, and they tend to get excited about anything that can grab their imagination.
Horizon has developed activities intended to complement the curriculum and provide extra resources for teachers and schools. The company has worked with teachers to develop these resources and continues to develop the programme in line with received feedback.
For example, Horizon offers an activity pack called: “Electricity and Me.” This is designed to engage and introduce children to the science behind low-carbon energy. The pack supports STEM subjects and promotes group discussion, independent thinking and problem-solving.
Young teens and adults
The second group of students, aged 13-16, can be harder to enthuse. In this case, you have to demonstrate ways in which what they are studying is relevant to real life. For example, one activity used a video that showed engineers testing the strength of a cask of (dummy) waste material by having a train crash into it. The students then used their knowledge of maths and physics to work out how far the cask would fly after being hit by a train, and what the minimum safe distance would be for an observer.
Horizon has developed activities for this age group that aim to support skills development and pathways that will lead into sustainable careers in the future.
The third group, young adults aged 17-21, have generally chosen the subjects they wish to study. For this age group, the emphasis is more on enabling the students to develop their studies.
Other activities where Horizon provides assistance include talking about employment and career routes. In particular, the company helps provide information about selecting study subjects with specific careers in mind. The company also offers assistance to students in the area with their career or study progression, but providing advice on composing CVs and by helping improve their interview techniques.
When the company provides speakers, a combination of young and experienced speakers is used where possible. Newly qualified engineers can generally relate better to the students, while experienced engineers have a variety of real-world experiences to draw upon. Senior engineers tend to be regarded with greater respect, while younger engineers are easier for students to identify with.
For this age group, Horizon offers a Work Insight Week. It is available to 16-17 year old students studying on Anglesey, and provides an insight into working at Horizon. Students spend a day at the new nuclear plant site at Wylfa Newydd. Here they learn about the nuclear industry, engineering and many other aspects of the Wylfa Newydd Project, and undertake team challenges.
Mark Salisbury, training manager at Horizon, said that the work that the company does with schools has wider benefits in maintaining relationships with the local community. The benefits arise in two ways. First, good relations with the community means parents are more favourably disposed to nuclear power, and as a result the children tend to be more receptive and enthusiastic. Second, developing interest in science and enthusiasm about it among the children, and encouraging their educational achievements, helps develop good community relations.
Salisbury pointed out that the industry needs both graduate engineers and apprentices. Horizon runs an apprenticeship scheme that is proving to be very popular. Apprentices are recruited locally, while graduates are recruited nationally, or even internationally.
The idea of the training programme and the educational outreach activities is to ensure that there is a regular flow of suitably qualified people. Salisbury described it as “an educational supply chain”, and said it is important for a company to be able to connect with every stage of the supply chain, and work to create, develop and enhance the skills pipeline. He went on to say that it was important for firms to be able to take on suitably qualified and experienced people to fulfil their requirements. They were required in addition to newly-qualified engineers.
The latter join the company on graduating from college or university, but they have had less opportunity to gain experience. Schemes are in place to ensure that graduate engineers can gain experience on nuclear power plants before they graduate. This may be via holiday sponsorships or gap year working. Of course, it is easier for an established utility that has working plants in place to provide such opportunities than it is for a newly formed utility.
When the young engineers gain this experience, the fact that it may take place at other sites or working in differences in reactor types is not a problem. More important for the student is acquiring the appropriate attitudes, behaviours and understanding of the nuclear culture, and to enhance that.