UK focus

Where are the people?

24 July 2007

A major obstacle to a possible new build programme in the UK is the country’s increasing shortage of nuclear engineering skills. By Ivor Catto

The current UK nuclear workforce of around 50,000 is ageing and leaving in increasing numbers. The government’s new National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN, due to launch at the end of this year) for nuclear estimates that 1500 people need to be replaced every year. We will need 11,500 new people over the next 20 years to complete the task of decommissioning, and 6500 in other civil and defence sectors – including new build. The NSAN also highlights an “acute gap” in the vocational skills and training required to meet the current and future needs of the nuclear industry. Over the next four years, the NSAN estimates that 70,000 “learning opportunities” will need to be delivered to the workforce.

All of this would be daunting enough if the skills shortages were confined to nuclear. But we know that the nuclear issue is part of a much bigger story of the UK’s chronic shortage of engineering skills. The Royal Academy of Engineering painted the picture starkly in its report a year ago: the numbers choosing engineering degrees is falling sharply as a proportion of the total, with only half of those graduates actually entering the profession. And all of this is taking place in an era of infrastructure regeneration and large-scale public projects, which are going to put unprecedented strain on our resources and talent: the 2012 Olympics, the M25 motorway widening, the Crossrail railway project, and other infrastructure projects too numerous to mention.

So what is to be done?

Private sector training

The private sector needs to start training more nuclear engineers. It’s encouraging to see the establishment of the NSAN, with a long-term business plan and a mixture of public and private money behind it. But it’s hard to see how one relatively small agency can coordinate all of the training which will be required in the next 20 years. The scale of the task is just too big. Atkins is one of the few companies to invest in its own training academy, providing us with a new crop of nuclear engineers every year.

Stable financial framework

To give companies the confidence to invest in training, the energy bill in the next Parliament needs to create a stable financial framework for new nuclear build. If the private sector is to lead the charge on the next generation of nuclear, it needs a more substantial commitment than the government is currently prepared to give. With the harsh lessons for the generators from the new electricity trading arrangements introduced in 2001 being such a recent memory, the private sector will be hesitant to commit itself fully to new nuclear, and that includes training the next generation of engineers.


Engineering, including nuclear, needs a big creative marketing campaign aimed at school leavers

Marketing campaign

Engineering, including nuclear, needs a big creative marketing campaign aimed at school leavers, to really sell it as a lucrative, rewarding career – when there is more competition than ever from the ‘glamorous’ worlds of high finance and corporate law.

Back in the 1980s, when nuclear power became a major target for the big environmental campaigners, and its economic future was called into question, the industry lost much of its appeal as a career choice. This was true of engineering generally. Previously attractive options like oil and gas were undergoing a period of lengthy lay-offs and retraction. Our television screens were full of young American lawyers and Wall Street traders getting rich and having a great time in the process. It’s hardly surprising that a huge chunk of the best and brightest graduates from the ’80s ended up in the City, in finance or law. Of all the engineering disciplines, nuclear probably suffered the most, with the haunting pictures from Chernobyl becoming defining images of the era.

The new college entrants of 2007 were born in the last year of that turbulent decade. It is as distant to them as the Cuban Missile Crisis was for my generation. Global warming has replaced nuclear war as the biggest anxiety of the age. The potential for nuclear power to play a role in tackling global warming, in the UK and abroad, is significant. Yet the nuclear industry, perhaps because it is run by people who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, underplays this message, and is not taking advantage of its latent appeal to school leavers and college graduates. Our television screens are full of upbeat adverts from utilities about the environmental benefits of their wind farm projects. Somehow, the nuclear industry needs to get across that same optimistic message.

In an ideal world, we would see engineers, including those in nuclear, becoming pervasive through popular culture as people who are tackling the biggest issues of our time: saving the planet from global warming, bringing heat, light, water and sanitation to the world’s rapidly expanding population.

Perhaps we need a new peak-time drama series on television where the stars are no longer City traders or advertising executives, but heroes from the world of engineering!

Engineering, including nuclear, needs a big creative marketing campaign aimed at school leavers Engineering, including nuclear, needs a big creative marketing campaign aimed at school leavers Quote1 Author Info:

Ivor Catto, Managing Director, Design & Engineering Solutions, Atkins, Woodcote Grove, Ashley Road, Epsom, Surrey KT18 5BW, UK

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