Solving the key nuclear challenge

16 August 2023

With an aging workforce, extended reactor lifetimes and a swath of new nuclear development in the pipeline, the nuclear sector needs to get its house in order when it comes to workforce management. A new report from the IAEA explains how.

Above: Recruiting workers with the right knowledge, skills and abilities is challenging for the nuclear sector

Given the bulk of the world’s current nuclear facilities were put in place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the following years saw very little growth in the industry, the age profile of the employees for these facilities is unusual. Nuclear plants generally have an older workforce than other major industrial facilities. Many of those currently working in the nuclear energy industry are retiring, or approaching retirement, and attrition of competent personnel is a significant risk. As many of nuclear plants are now considering life extension programmes of up to 50 years or even beyond, this necessitates the replacement of much of the experienced workforce in a relatively short period of time. For nuclear, this situation is particularly challenging considering the requirement to maintain the safety and security culture of the organisation and transfer knowledge to the next generation. The situation is made even more difficult because in many states careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) generally – and in the nuclear industry specifically – are not seen as being as attractive as other areas such as IT, media or business.

With substantial growth in the use of nuclear power now widely forecast, not only do older workers need to be replaced but the number of industry personnel will also need to expand significantly to meet new demand. The industry will have to recruit a large number of suitably educated people and provide them with the necessary training and experience.

According to a new report from the IAEA, which explores these challenges, the importance of establishing and implementing a human resource management (HRM) strategy is paramount. The IAEA report argues that states and nuclear organisations need to recognise that – together with effective processes – such a strategy will play a key role in maintaining and improving safety, as well as business performance.

Specific requirements and challenges

While human resource processes and practices in the nuclear sector are similar to many of those found in other industries the nuclear business does present some unique complexities. The report, Managing Human Resources in the Field of Nuclear Energy, states that the combination of specific requirements which apply to the industry means that managing HR in the nuclear field is more difficult than many other sectors. Nuclear-specific issues include the complex technology that requires additional job specific training and experience requirements for some positions. That can add several years to the overall employee development process. Furthermore, even once trained, to ensure continued competence there is still a requirement to maintain qualifications using a systematic approach to training (SAT), which involves considerable time and resources. In addition, the workforce involved in the nuclear power industry, is becoming increasingly international with people from different backgrounds and national and organisational cultures. This potentially results in cultural and language barriers, different working methods, and variance in safety and security standards. Work processes, training methods and retention strategies need to account for these differences, especially the necessity of a safety and security culture. This culture must encourage people to have the appropriate attitudes, behaviours, standards and values on nuclear safety.

Critical steps of workforce planning

Among the critical steps of workforce planning identified in the report, the IAEA says analysing the future workforce requirements and developing specifications is vital. These assessments should cover the competencies, numbers and locations of employees and managers needed to accomplish the organisation’s mission, goals and objectives. Furthermore, this information will need to be developed in conjunction with the organisation’s strategic plans and budgetary requirements. Such analyses also need to consider current and desired age profiles. Other steps include assessing the existing workforce and determining what the current workforce resources are and how they will evolve over time. The HR strategy needs to consider turnover especially in the context of nuclear retirements, the report notes. It adds that identifying and determining what gaps will exist between current and projected workforce needs, including the identification of current and emerging skill requirements, is also key.

Establishing these requirements can then form the basis of the development of a recruitment, retention and outsourcing strategy, as well as identifying lead times for recruiting, hiring, training and transferring knowledge. By including these requirements in the workforce plan, operators are able to ensure timely development and delivery of skilled personnel for future needs and manage staff for the effective transfer of knowledge.

According to the IAEA report, the workforce plan should be a ‘living’ document that requires scheduled reviews and updates. This becomes even more important during periods of organisational change or when the labour markets are in flux, for example where the actual workforce attrition differs from what was planned. In this regard, according to the report, it is advisable to use appropriate IT tooling in order for easily update the plan in order for it to stay current. The report’s authors also argue that it is important that the plan identifies any risks and also sets out risk mitigation measures to respond to potentially unexpected conditions.

The benefits of detailed workforce planning include a systematic structure within which to evaluate alternative organisational designs from an HR perspective. This approach also confers the ability to identify expected gaps between the competence of the existing workforce and those that will be needed in the future.

Another critical aspect of workforce planning is assisting in the development of a long-term strategy, including outsourcing, for the recruitment and training of future employees. It also serves to address the replacement of employees in critical knowledge areas and where competence gaps have emerged, which can occur as a result of process improvements, technology advancements and changing organisational requirements.

The report further notes that workforce planning includes assessing the extent to which the available workforce can be effectively utilised to support the full life cycle of a nuclear facility, from commissioning through major upgrades and on to decommissioning. More broadly, planning can also help identify potential gaps in national education and training programmes and infrastructure, which could require government intervention and support to resolve, the IAEA says.

Sourcing candidate pipelines

Having defined the required number of people, together with their knowledge, skills and experience and when they are needed, the next step is to ascertain where they can be found. the report notes that this includes important related considerations such as how they can be reached, what is going to attract them to join the business and how an organisation can enhance its reputation as a prospective employer? Candidates can range from those with no experience, such as school or university leavers, through to those with relevant experience coming from nuclear or related industries and with some skills. Important industries for nuclear recruitment include electricity generation, nuclear research facilities, nuclear navy, or those with specific transferable skills such as those from the legal, financial, procurement or HR roles.

The report emphasises that the first step in working with both categories of experience is to map the competence requirements of the organisation to be able to compare these with the potential candidate sources.

When considering inexperienced candidates, from an industry perspective the role of education is to provide people with the capabilities to become competent professionals and to prepare them for industry and job specific training programmes. However, education and training institutions are typically preparing students for a wide range of careers and could be unaware of the needs of specific sectors such as nuclear. By working closely with education and training organisations, it may be possible to influence the curricula to develop people with knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) which will fit better with the needs of the workforce plan. Examples could include establishing partnerships with schools or universities to develop courses that equip people with the specific knowledge and skills needed. Furthermore, the report says, to facilitate and improve candidate pipelines and sources, nuclear industry managers and key stakeholders (including governments) could benefit from establishing such relationships.

The IAEA says the industry also needs to work with the education and training sector to develop programmes which are aligned with the nuclear industry’s professional and technical standards and requirements. To do so, mechanisms to ensure the quality of education and training programmes need to be established and could include accreditation, standardisation, internships, apprenticeships and other cooperative programmes for students. They could also involve nuclear industry managers and leading specialists teaching at education and training institutions. In some national programmes, university engineering courses are also accredited by professional engineering organisations, making these bodies important partners for the nuclear industry.

Government sponsored or funded vocational education and training programmes operated by academic institutions that produce qualified technicians can also be a valuable source of candidates. The report the authors add that  these technicians typically have a basic set of qualifications and practical experience in their technical field. In this case, a nuclear industry organisation needs only to provide facility-specific and nuclear fundamentals training after the individual joins the enterprise.
However, they continue, it is important that government agencies, industry and academia collaborate nationally and internationally to create a framework to support education and training for the nuclear energy sector. This includes considering funding and planning for nuclear R&D being integrated with funding for education. Similarly, organisations funding nuclear R&D need to ensure that education and training aspects are included as a component of research activities. Networking of academic institutions is another key strategy for capacity building that can make better use of available educational resources.

Candidate pipelines from industry

Following the analysis of the knowledge, skills and abilities required, the report says it is possible to identify those industries and organisations whose workforce already have some of the competences required for the nuclear industry. These could include organisations within the nuclear industry, such as those running research reactors, within nuclear medicine and other adjacent or relevant industries, for instance, energy, rail, petrochemicals, aviation or mega infrastructure. The military, especially navy personnel with nuclear propulsion experience, are also a potential source, observes the IAEA.

However, attracting candidates from these sectors may mean competing against other potential employers. This competitive environment will need to be reflected in the HR recruitment and retention strategy.

The number and competence of the permanent staff required depends on the outsourcing strategy of the organisation. For example, on some nuclear power plants maintenance and some technical support functions have been performed through a contract with the original equipment supplier or another third-party contractor. Some of the required assessment and inspection services can also be outsourced. Here the report also highlights the difficulty of maintaining competence for infrequent, specialist tasks and the availability of internal and external skills, and resources. Further to this, the availability and cost of external services and the legal and regulatory requirements also need to be considered. The range of third-party services required may be affected by the ability of the organisation to hire and retain personnel internally, taking into account the minimum staff required. Other considerations, including the risk management approach, need to be factored in too. The IAEA sums up by saying, whatever the situation, a nuclear licensee can never delegate overall responsibility for safety and must ensure it can maintain sufficient competent staff to manage any outsourced activity.

Management and retention

Succession management involves the identification of individuals as potential successors for each key position and then targeting development activities to help them prepare for this forthcoming role. Given it can take years to develop people for specialist positions, this is of particular importance for nuclear organisations. The IAEA report notes that one of the key objectives in succession management is to match an organisation’s future needs with the aspirations of individuals. Providing development opportunities that offer new challenges and are more promising than those found elsewhere is an effective way to retain talent.

When enacting succession plans senior managers have to pay attention to the resilience of the team or teams when internal moves and appointments are being considered. The length of time and performance in a post, number of years of managerial or technical experience, and experience in terms of technical background also need to be taken into account during succession planning. The report adds that other relevant generalist and technical experience, project management and structural integrity, for instance, can be conducive to fulfilling the job requirements.

The potential loss of people with critical knowledge and skills can be addressed through conducting risk assessments, which also enable nuclear organisations to improve the competence of new and existing personnel. Critical posts need to be identified and, where possible, successors with agreed action plans to mitigate risk and engage in external recruitment, if required.

Knowledge management is acknowledged as being important for nuclear organisations, which need to have a knowledge management programme to ensure that critical knowledge is transferred before people leave or move within an organisation. It is also closely aligned with workforce planning and succession and talent management.

With a 100-year lifespan from planning through construction, commissioning and operation and on through decommissioning, sustaining a competent workforce through all an installation’s life cycle is no easy task. For workforce management the obvious implication is people from multiple generations of workers will be responsible for nuclear plants over their lifetimes. Each generation may have different norms, expectations and motivating factors that need to be considered and addressed in planning and implementing programmes to recruit, develop and retain them. A key part of this process will be knowledge management over a facility’s lifetime.

The IAEA strategy is formulated to help the nuclear industry assess and go some way to remedy these ongoing problems which are expected to become more significant over time. To ensure plant safety means getting enough of the right people and the nuclear sector needs to address that issue without delay.

Author: Tim Nadin

Industries related to nuclear power can be a valuable source of recruits
Nuclear enterprises can work with academic institutions to help build-in the right skills sets for school-leavers and graduates

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