Worldwide investment in nuclear power is expected to reach an unprecedented £930 billion over the next 20 years. Across the world, there are 60 new nuclear plants under construction in 15 countries. This new-build construction work is in addition to maintenance work required for existing plants and dozens of decommissioning programmes.

While the pipeline of work has rarely been so strong, the pipeline of skilled nuclear workers is weaker. In the UK, it is estimated that 70% of the existing nuclear energy workforce will be retired by 2025.

The reason for the skills shortage is clear and is not confined to the nuclear industry. Across the world, there has been too little investment in training and education for all engineering disciplines. This historic under-investment exists not only in the delivery of training and education for engineers but also in communicating the benefits of an engineering career.

Despite the strong pipeline of new work, uncertainty remains around the timing, funding and technology of new nuclear.

In the 20 years since the UK’s previous nuclear power station was built, we have seen rapid technological advances in nuclear power generation. New skills are required to see new projects through from conception to completion.

To help prepare the UK for the next generation of nuclear workers, new policies have been set in motion to support businesses by boosting the pipeline of skilled workers, including initiatives such as the National College for Nuclear. The College, which opens in September, is one of seven new employer-led National Colleges being created to make sure that young people learn world-class skills in

sectors such as digital media, nuclear, creative, oil and gas and high-speed rail. Funding will come from government (£80 million across the seven National Colleges), matched by cash and in-kind investment from employers – led by EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd for the nuclear college.

Nuclear is one of five core sectors identified in January 2017 for support in the British government’s new Industrial Strategy.
These sectors are expected to have ‘sector deals’ that could involve significant investment in R&D in a bid to “support the industries of the future where Britain has the potential to lead the world.” Nuclear Industry Association chairman Lord Hutton has been appointed to secure the sector deal and to lead the work on UK competitiveness and skills in nuclear.

While it is heartening that we are now taking long-term steps in the right direction these initiatives will not begin to help to address the skills shortage in the sector for many years.

As industries and businesses grow, there will be periods of uncertainty – as has happened recently, when NuGen launched a review of its planned £10 billion plants in Moorside. Uncertainty over funding, timing and technology creates doubt and an unwillingness for organisations to invest in their workforce. To meet the challenges the industry is facing now, businesses need to create a more flexible workforce of nuclear engineers.

As the nuclear sector undergoes growth more firms are turning to contractors to help them manage periods of change and uncertainty. Hiring contractors has some advantages. You are much more likely to find ‘plug and play’ candidates that will add value to the organisation instantly, rather than taking the time to train permanent staff. Contractors also remove significant costs to businesses by removing the need to pay the staff benefits involved in permanent recruitment.

Hiring contractors can be more cost effective and allow businesses to be more reactive to peaks and troughs caused by uncertainty as contractors can be brought in more quickly. Contractor assignments can also be ended quickly and avoid negative press coverage around permanent redundancies.

Building a team of trusted contractors can help businesses react quickly to tackle new projects and launch new teams to embrace the new opportunities created by decommissioning.

There are other options to increase workforce flexibility. New terms and conditions that can be inserted in the contracts of permanent and temporary staff include:

  • Mobility and movement: To allow staff to move to another location or other reasonable day-to-day work if required.
  • A project completion bonus: This can incentivise a workforce and reduce costs for employers if workers leave before the project has been completed.
  • Annualised hours: If your business has peaks and troughs throughout the year, you might look at averaging out hours across the year for some or all employees. Staff work reduced hours during quiet times and increased hours during peaks, but are paid in equal instalments throughout the year.

It is important for nuclear engineering companies to remember that they must remain attractive in the battle for talent. But as they build their workforce for the future, flexibility should be at the heart of everything they do.

About the author

Adam Spelman is regional director for the UK at NES Global Talent