It’s perhaps no surprise to the industry, but the nuclear workforce is now the most sought-after in the energy business. Worryingly, intense competition from other sectors, such as oil and gas, could see critical nuclear skills lost to energy rivals. These are key conclusions emerging from Airswift’s latest annual Global Energy Talent Index (GETI).

The 2023 report notes that the nuclear workforce is heavily in demand across the industry with 83% of nuclear workers headhunted in the last year, and close to a fifth receiving 11 or more approaches, the highest of any energy sector. Indeed, nuclear workers are twice as likely as their oil and gas, and petrochemicals peers to be approached for jobs by companies from an outside industry. Around three-quarters of nuclear industry respondents to the survey have said they would even consider leaving their sector altogether.

These findings emerge as countries around the globe are expanding their nuclear ambitions. Nuclear has always been a strong and steady sector and many existing employees see the clean energy transition as something positive, with 42% of those surveyed citing it as a major opportunity within the field. However, while many jobs are set to open across the globe to accommodate growth in the nuclear sector, Airswift says that the challenge associated with the severe lack of talent cannot be understated. This kind of supply chain constraint is likely to be enhanced by factors like the recent fossil fuel price boom causing an exodus of nuclear workers, they add.

The company identifies a series of strategies that may be adopted to secure workplace talent though.

“Three key factors in solving the skills shortage crisis for the nuclear sector will be focusing on upskilling existing talent, sourcing people from a variety of other sectors, and global mobility,” says Ashley Samuelson, Vice President at Airswift.

Building skills

One issue is the loss of skills as experienced operators and engineers leave the nuclear market. “We’re hearing our clients frequently speak about how they need to capture that knowledge and make sure it’s transferred to the younger workforce,” says Samuelson. She argues that company or site initiatives should be put in place to make sure that they are tracking the retirements of key experienced people and make sure they have a heavy emphasis on succession planning. “An increasing number of our clients, especially within the nuclear sector, are ensuring they are tracking when people are nearing their retirement point in their careers. For example, noting that an individual has two more years before they are planning on exiting the workforce and understanding what knowledge they need to capture and transfer,” she says.

The nuclear sector compares positively with other similar sectors like oil and gas and the chemicals industry, with a significant focus on succession planning.

“This practice is regularly occurring the most within the nuclear business, not saying all sites everywhere are at the forefront, but it’s something that’s coming up repeatedly in conversation. They are already thinking about how to ensure it’s a seamless transition when experienced people do leave the workforce,” Samuelson says, adding: “In terms of best practice, succession planning is something that should be in place. Making sure managers are keeping an eye on when people are retiring and putting procedures in place to ensure that knowledge and skills transfer takes place.”

Samuelson also points to upskilling existing talent through processes like knowledge transfers that can make the nuclear business more attractive and support staff retention. Organisations must be cautious and continue to pay attention to their existing employees, in the 2022 report for example 84% of GETI respondents claimed that they would be happy to switch to another company within the nuclear sector. Companies must therefore devote energy to retraining and upskilling existing talent, taking the initiative now to invest in learning and development programmes to upskill their current employees and help secure their workforce for the long term. “Amongst our clients, we’re seeing huge demand within the engineering areas. They want to bring in young engineers and make sure they are upskilling them to become the experts,” says Samuelson. “It is getting clients to be intentional in how they’re being attractive in the overall package. Candidates want opportunities to be upskilled and to diversify their backgrounds, so our clients have to be deliberate about how they’re giving back to the workforce,” she concludes.

Sourcing from a variety of other sectors

While the nuclear sector is facing challenges from other industries and elsewhere within the energy sector, there are also opportunities to recruit from these areas.

“We specialise within the technical roles and because it’s such a competitive landscape now, it is about attracting young professionals to want to be within clean energy and part of sustaining the environment,” says Samuelson, adding: “We’re seeing that our clients are looking at how they’re making themselves attractive to young professionals and showing them how the nuclear market is going to feed into that landscape.”

Recruiting young people excited by the possibilities of the nuclear industry, contributing to our clean energy future, and developing new world-changing technologies, is a key strategy for the industry as it looks to secure a talent pipeline.

“We are seeing it is a big focus for the market. Twenty years ago, they didn’t need to make themselves attractive, because the nuclear market is one of the most stable sectors and when people join the industry they tend to stay. Some of the other markets are more mobile, and people are going to jump around within the greater power markets.

Now companies are having to be more conscientious on how they’re marketing to the young engineering talent to attract them and integrate them into the industry,” Samuelson says.

She also picks up on other changing perspectives when looking to source people from other sectors such as oil and gas, which is seen by many as an industry in terminal decline given the climate change imperative. As Samuelson observes: “If I look across my portfolio, nuclear is one of the more challenging sub-markets to move people back and forth from, but we have observed our clients being more open to various backgrounds. If candidates have expertise within other power generation sectors – because other types of power generation plants are closing if you’re looking at coal or other markets – they’re more open to going ahead. Previously it was a requirement for prior nuclear experience to be considered for the role.” She adds: “Now we’re seeing that within certain areas like engineering, project controls, planning, and scheduling, those types of backgrounds do seem to be transferable from within oil and gas and other power generation markets.”

Boosting mobility

While in many ways the bigger part of a nuclear power station is the same as a coal-fired power station, an important function has been educating the nuclear business to exploit this kind of opportunity as a source of skilled and experienced workers.

Increased mobility can see people move within the industry itself, between sectors, and internationally. Global mobility is therefore another important source of recruitment but is one that the nuclear business has traditionally struggled with.

“We do see the least amount of global mobility within this market, and I would surmise that’s because government regulations make it easier to move from station to station domestically. We have seen a small amount, but it’s mostly people from the US moving to other stations. We’re not seeing many people move into the US market from other countries,” says Samuelson. However, according to GETI, in response to the growing momentum behind new nuclear, particularly in Asia, 69% of employers promote cross-regional job transfers – the highest of any sector.

Samuelson continues: “Operators from other energy business areas globally are being brought into the US, are highly desired and it is a lot easier to do that because it is happening more often than we’re seeing within the nuclear industry.” She cites the LNG market where global mobility is significant. “Oil and gas capital projects around the globe benefit from having the capability to mobilise globally to support projects. They are looking for key backgrounds to be able to move from project to project; therefore, we see that within other markets this approach is more highly utilised,” she says.

Nonetheless, the idea that other sectors have benefited from easier recruitment of people from a more diverse geographical area has helped and is being increasingly reappraised by the nuclear industry.

“Our client base has been receptive to our suggestions when there are similarities across backgrounds and skill sets. There is an openness to review and talk through candidate backgrounds. If the market is tighter, they’re looking at power generation or oil and gas and being able to transfer over a planner/scheduler from another industry,” says Samuelson.

According to the GETI report, the nuclear sector has consistently ranked the lowest when it comes to global mobility within the energy sector, even though three-quarters of respondents said that they would consider relocating. The mobility barrier will likely remain a challenge in coming years though. “There’s a huge appetite from our clients for people that have worked at other stations across the US. That’s a challenge within the nuclear environment because there is a lot of time and resources invested in their workforce to be able to work at a nuclear station that you’re not seeing across some of the other emerging markets because it’s so highly regulated,” says Samuelson.

Stump up the cash

Inevitably, industry attractiveness and staff retention drivers extend to salaries too. The GETI survey suggests that low pay could drive a skills exodus with only 59% of hiring managers expecting salaries to rise next year, the lowest of any area in the energy sector. As a result, nuclear job satisfaction is currently the lowest in the industry at 62%, with nuclear workers also the most likely to say remuneration is the biggest driver of high job satisfaction. Remuneration has also overtaken culture as the third biggest driver of workforce relocation to other regions.

Overall, though, Samuelson argues that solving the recruitment challenge will need a whole toolbox of approaches that can make the nuclear industry not only attractive to newcomers but that will allow the industry to retain skills and experience within the business too.

“Across the entire market, it was candidate-driven in 2022 and we found people were more receptive to taking new positions. We saw that people were open to hearing about new locations, new roles, and clients must be aware of that,” she says.

Samuelson concludes: “It needs to be at the forefront for our clients on how to attract, but also retain their workforce, and that’s feeding in from training to culture to overall work-life balance.”

This article first appeared in Nuclear Engineering International magazine.