The nuclear skills shortage is imminent – we need to make sure our workforce is prepared

At the dawn of a ‘new nuclear industrial age’, debate has so far tended to focus on the next generation of nuclear technologies. Whilst these are obviously important in tackling climate change and contributing to the UK’s energy security and growth, in order to truly successfully diversify our supply, we must also focus on the next generation of workers.

Over 60 years ago, the UK was the first country to successfully develop, deliver and safely operate nuclear power stations. Today, the nuclear sector is still thriving, with major projects such as Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset, Wylfa in Anglesey, and Moorside in Cumbria coming to fruition. Yet the industry is facing an important skills shortage which could jeopardize its future. 

The ageing demographic profile of the existing workforce implies that many technical specialists, who joined the industry during the last major growth period in 1980s, will soon retire. Out of the 7-8000 engineers expected to be required every year until 2021, a fifth of these will replace retirees.

And whilst in theory the UK annually produces a sufficient number of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) graduates to be able to support labour requirements, the reality is that a significant proportion of these will choose to work in non-STEM roles. The same shortage affects the broader engineering sector across the country, meaning that competition is fierce.

The expected fall in the number of migrant labourers post-Brexit, the rigorous safety and security regulations in nuclear engineering and the often remote site locations are not helping the issue. All these factors are likely to result in significant attrition of skills and expertise. It is high time we in the nuclear industry developed a collaborative approach to avoid the looming crisis – which is particularly acute amongst management roles and subject matter expert roles, but is still prevalent at all levels, including roles such as steel fixers, skilled welders, concreters and civil engineers.

To ensure knowledge transfers between generations without being lost, it’s critical that we continue to challenge the outdated perception of the nuclear sector, invest in the right skills and training formats, and address diversity issues.

In recent years, recruitment of large numbers of nuclear engineers has dropped compared to previous decades, which leads me to question whether teachers and parents fully understand the type and range of career opportunities available within this specific sector. An increased focus on STEM subjects and professions at education level could help prevent such scarcity of information.

If we want to bridge the gap between those approaching retirement and those coming in, the industry urgently needs to widen the possible talent pool. This does not only mean further developing in-house training, mentoring and high-level apprenticeships, but also encouraging nuclear engineers who have left the profession to re-join and supporting those in relevant sectors who may wish to convert.  

Equally, much work remains to be done to address broader diversity issues. With women representing only 11% of the total UK engineering workforce in 2017, the discussion of how to make the industry attractive to women has to be high on the agenda.

In this context, it’s more important than ever for recruiters to have a technical understanding of the nuclear sector’s requirements and to have access to talented industry candidates.

Here at Acorn, we’re bridging the gap between recruitment and the nuclear industry by partnering with the Wales Nuclear Forum, providing a platform for strategic engagement between the nuclear industry and Welsh-based suppliers. Our new energy specialist division has been specifically launched to help companies in the nuclear, oil and gas sectors to effectively plan and manage their staff.

With some of the best facilities and research resources in the world, the UK has untapped potential to develop an innovative nuclear industry - we just need to ensure our workforce is prepared for it.   

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