Solutions for the skills challenge

13 February 2018

There are skills challenges ahead that will only be addressed through a continuing collaborative approach. Jo Tipa explains how NSAN is helping to bring the UK nuclear sector together to take action on the skills requirements.

THE UK NUCLEAR INDUSTRY is facing a future skills shortage as the nuclear programme gains momentum, with a new-build programme, existing nuclear and extensive decommissioning and defence programmes to be supported. Combine this with an ageing workforce, the impact of Brexit (in particular leaving Euratom), changes to the skills landscape and competing infrastructure projects, and it’s clear the challenge is considerable.

One part of the nuclear programme where the skills forecast is predicted to remain constant is defence. Even with a planned submarine programme, the workforce, including its supply chain, is expected to remain at just under 40,000 for the foreseeable future, according to ’Nuclear Workforce Assessment 2017 – skills for a nuclear generation’, published by the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group.

One of the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is that it includes leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). As a party to the Euratom treaty the UK has had access to a common market with the EU for nuclear goods, services, workers and research and development, which has benefitted both the UK and the EU. It is imperative that arrangements are agreed on for efficient continued trade and cooperation between the UK and the EU. A number of recommendations have been made to government from industry via the Nuclear Industry Association and Nuclear Skills Strategy Group (NSSG), which NSAN supports. Those referring to the skills agenda are:

  • Freedom of movement; this is clearly essential to maintain the sector’s current ability to employ people from across the EU. Any restriction in terms of barriers to entry, costs and time may affect the timely availability of workers.
  • The nuclear new-build projects planned for the UK are designed and financed from outside the UK. Hinkley Point C and Sizewell use French technology. French workers will be required throughout all stages of construction and operation. In April 2017, NSAN and the Institut National des Sciences et Techniques Nucléaires (INSTN) signed an agreement to strengthen joint working on the ‘skills for nuclear’ agenda across the UK and France. This agreement included a commitment to develop a strong bilateral Franco-British cooperation on skills for nuclear, and demonstrates a readiness to collaborate together through and beyond Brexit.
  • Leaving Euratom means the UK risks not being able to access the skills needed (including access to subject matter experts) for the nuclear new-build programme as well as for future research into new reactor technologies and materials.

As work on developing a way forward after Brexit continues, the UK’s successor arrangement to Euratom must preserve the free movement in nuclear fuel, materials, goods, information and people that the nuclear sector requires.

Collaboration is providing solutions

However big the skills challenge, it is important to note that a lot of work has already been undertaken. Nuclear companies, providers and other stakeholders have been working together via NSAN to take action and help ensure the industry has a workforce with the capability and capacity to address the challenges ahead. Operators, site licence companies (SLCs) and supply chain companies have all been heavily involved in developing industry-specific training initiatives. They must continue to collaborate to ensure competencies and capabilities are developed throughout the supply chain.

NSSG’s Nuclear Workforce Assessment 2017 reports that construction of five sites, for 16GWe new generation, plus delivery of the submarine successor programme, will have a demand for competent people that will eventually require an additional inflow of around 7000 workers per year (including short term appointments after 2016-2021). This, coupled with the need to replace the 20% of the nuclear workforce who will pass the age of 65 in the next ten years, is evidence of the need for fast recruitment.

December 2017 saw the official launch of a talent-sharing platform called the Nuclear Gateway. This is a placement service that connects employers with candidates looking for apprenticeship or graduate opportunities. The platform has been developed by Talent Retention Solutions (TRS) in collaboration with NSAN and the NDA and will form part of their wider attraction and redeployment services to the nuclear industry.

Through involvement with the Nuclear Gateway, companies with oversubscribed graduate and apprentice programmes can give candidates that they are unable to employ the opportunity to work with other nuclear companies. This is a timely and cost-effective route for talented individuals, and ensures those who are passionate about a career in nuclear are not lost to other sectors.

A number of stakeholders are committed to using the Nuclear Gateway, including Magnox, Sellafield, Gen2, Nucleargraduates, EDF Energy, NIS, Bridgwater College, Grwp Llandrillo Menai and the Ministry of Defence.

Recruitment is important, but time to competence equally has to be considered by organisations upskilling for nuclear contracts. A large proportion of the skills needed to work in nuclear and on new-build sites are technical skills, not specifically nuclear. The majority of the technical capability required for the nuclear industry already exists – for example, in the construction and manufacturing industries.

What is required is an efficient way of ensuring people have an understanding of the nuclear industry, to enable all workers to adhere to the requirements for compliance, nuclear awareness and industry behaviours. A suite of Triple Bar Programmes has been developed to provide workers new to nuclear with this understanding.

This format has proven successful and over 20,000 people have undertaken the Triple Bar courses.

Ease of access to training and information is another important aspect of upskilling and developing workers. Courses like the Triple Bars are available via the Nuclear Training Network (NTN). Developed by the industry via NSAN and with some development funding from government, the NTN is an online learning portal that provides training courses. It also allows employers to upload training and learning materials to share with selected companies across the sector and optimise project schedules.

The UK nuclear industry has an ageing demographic, and around 10% of the workforce are either subject matter experts or, more commonly, in roles requiring specialist nuclear skills. The lead time in developing such skills can be between 10 to 20 years, so effective knowledge management is needed. Critical people and roles have to be identified, processes and techniques developed to store and transfer the critical knowledge and expertise. Organisations working in or with the nuclear industry have to be able to decide on and take forward plans to ensure that their companies are not affected by knowledge gaps or knowledge loss. NSAN has recently launched a knowledge management course specifically for the nuclear industry. It is available for anyone working in the nuclear sector and its supply chain who wants to increase their awareness of knowledge management principles and methods – including international developments of benefit to the UK.

This is a very brief glimpse at some of the work that has been undertaken in readiness for the UK’s planned nuclear programme. The skill requirement for nuclear will grow, and some specialisms will require long lead times to develop. This will be compounded by the increasing number of workers retiring.

Whilst the full outcomes of the Brexit negotiations are awaited, the nuclear industry must continue to move forwards. Workers external to the UK will be needed, and work is under way to ensure that the UK is positioned to meet as much as possible of the increase in workload without over-reliance on imported labour.

The UK nuclear industry’s efforts to meet the needs of the nuclear programme should be noted. NSAN will continue to play a fundamental role. It will enable the sector to continue to work collaboratively to ensure that its changing skills needs are met in a timely, cost effective, efficient and safe way. 

Training Jo Tipa, Managing Director, National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN) since December 2017

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