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The 'New-to-Nuclear' Worker Power-up Plan: How to Ensure a Smooth and Safe Transition to Field Work

For the last decade, the nuclear industry has been engaged in a focused effort to address the looming talent gap as a large number of baby boomer workers reach retirement age. In that time, significant progress has been made in raising awareness around the issue and developing new educational curriculums and partnerships. Work still remains, but the industry is increasing the number of new workers entering the field. Efforts must be made to ensure that new-to-nuclear workers are as ready as possible to take center stage.

Increasing the number of qualified workers available to support nuclear operations and maintenance work will require collaboration, customization, and creative problem solving in three key ways.  

Tailor Training and Orientation Programs

The nuclear industry is highly regulated, nuclear plant managers need to do more than recite the rulebook to build cultures of productivity and safety.   This is especially true for “new-to-nuclear” workers. While new workers may have all of the necessary certifications and clearances to work on a nuclear site, there’s a stark difference between learning about work in a controlled educational setting and actually getting out in the field.

Plant managers need to work with contractors to ensure that any new-to-nuclear workers receive tailored training and orientation programs. While the review of rules and regulations is essential, model programs move beyond this base level and focus on training modules that nurture the culture and mindset necessary to work in the nuclear environment. Participants should complete these programs reporting higher levels of caution and a questioning attitude when performing job tasks.  Successful programs will drive safety and human performance. This type of training program requires careful cooperation between plant managers and contractors to ensure contractor training is consistent with plant requirements.

Encourage Coaching & Mentoring Culture

While initial training and orientation programs help to lay a foundation, it is equally important that workers are exposed to on-the-job training. Formal programs should be developed to achieve this, but equally important is building a culture that encourages coaching and mentoring. Mentorship cultures thrive in an environment where there are high levels of accountability and where learning is not strictly a top-down exercise. Experienced workers should be empowered to correct negative behaviors of new workers and vice-versa. These types of behaviors encourage an open exchange of ideas regardless of title, position, or age. When working with contractors, plant managers should verify that programs are in place to encourage coaching and mentoring and to build relationships between new and experienced workers. 

Establish Goals for New-to-Nuclear Workers

The entire nuclear industry is incentivized to increase the number of trained and qualified nuclear workers. Despite this fact, there is an understandable demand for contractors to provide experienced and proven workers to ensure productivity and efficiency.  Unfortunately, this approach sacrifices long-term needs for immediate results. Minimizing the number of new-to-nuclear workers a contractor uses doesn’t necessarily improve safety, schedule, and quality. It sets up future outages for problems when experienced workers are retired and gone.

In order to address this issue, plant managers and contractors should work toward a collaborative approach that encourages contractors to meet minimum requirements for new-to-nuclear workers during outage work. Formulating an appropriate ratio of new to experienced nuclear workers will help maintain performance and quality while also preserving the future of the industry. Contractors working on multiple sites across the country are on the frontlines of developing and nurturing new talent but need to be supported by utilities with new-to-nuclear worker commitments if these efforts are to be successful. 

The number of new-to-nuclear workers is growing, but the industry needs to cultivate a skilled workforce that can execute work in a safety-conscious work environment.  By working together, utilities and contractors will be in a more favorable position to positively impact these workers and power-up the new-to-nuclear workforce for the future.  

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