getting a jump on future shortages in the nuclear workforce

Jo-Ann Rolle, Excelsior College

The historical factors are well documented. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, questions regarding safe handling and storage of nuclear waste, and rising construction costs threw into doubt the future of nuclear power in the late 1970s and 1980s. With the court of public opinion swinging against nuclear, electric utilities nixed plans for new construction and cancelled several projects already underway. As a result, a career in nuclear power appeared risky, and enrollments in college and university nuclear power-related programs decreased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, reducing a major pipeline of degreed and qualified workers. Today, through enhanced performance by nuclear generators, as well as the desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, electric utilities are again looking to nuclear power.

With a large proportion of the population of the nuclear workforce now approaching retirement age, existing power plants will be hard pressed to find enough qualified workers to support their operations, which, for many utilities, will be necessary for decades to come even without new construction.

According to Patrick Berry, a training manager at the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Station, “Our demographics study shows we are good until about 2009 or 2010. At that point, we start to have a number of retirements that will impact some key groups.” For both existing and new workers, a college degree will be necessary to support their promotion to higher-level management positions opened through retirement.

distance education and adult learners

In the early 1970s, the New York State Board of Regents embarked upon a revolutionary idea—to establish an external degree program without residency requirements based on the assessment of prior learning. Now called Excelsior (then Regents) College, it was originally founded with business, nursing and liberal studies programs. The college added a nuclear technology degree in the early 1980s, which was also a result of the Three Mile Island incident when the government and leadership of the nuclear industry were looking to professionalize the workforce. Excelsior’s model of distance education dovetailed with the nuclear industry’s needs to educate adult students who were juggling the responsibilities of work and family.

Today, the bachelor of science in nuclear engineering technology is accredited by the Technology Accrediting Commission of the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (TAC of ABET), which is the highest level of professional accreditation that can be attained for a technical degree.

assessment goes nuclear

Over the years, Excelsior has developed an assessment model for professional and military training and forged strategic partnerships with the military and certain industries for the purpose of awarding college-level credit for completion of training, including the Navy’s nuclear training program. The first step involves assessing the training to ensure that it is as rigorous as college coursework and then assigning course and credit equivalencies. Assessing the training at nuclear electric utilities is the latest initiative. The training follows guidelines already set forth by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), monitored by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) and accredited by the independent Nuclear Accrediting Board of the National Academy for Nuclear Training (NANT). Strict adherence by nuclear utilities is required.

Excelsior’s assessment team concentrated on development of content comparisons between the utility training programs and the 16 core courses required for Excelsior’s nuclear engineering technology degree. Course and credit recommendations were developed for 10 of the 12 nuclear utility training programs: shift technical advisor, senior reactor operator, reactor operator, non-licensed operator, engineering support personnel, radiation protection technician, chemistry technician, electrical maintenance personnel, instrument and control technician, and mechanical maintenance personnel. Two programs, operations shift manager and operations licensed continuing training, were not included as part of Excelsior’s credit recommendations because their content fell outside the focus of the project.

Excelsior’s academic advising fuels success

After the training program review process, Excelsior academic advising teams were available to discuss the nuclear engineering technology degree program and answer general questions about admissions and earning a degree with prospective students. Dr. Jane LeClair, a training consultant with Constellation Energy’s Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station, maximized this facet of the project by promoting the Excelsior degree program at the power plant. She then distributed application and information packets to interested individuals and returned completed packets to the college a few months in advance.

“This allowed the Excelsior advisors to complete a thorough credit review prior to their arrival on site, and it made the meetings here at our plant go quickly and smoothly,” she said. The college is highly regarded for the quality of its academic advising services. In fact, a senior academic advisor with the technology program was selected by the National Academic Advising Association for a prestigious outstanding advisor award in 2004.

encouraging results

Results are preliminary, but according to Dr. Byron Thinger, engineering training supervisor at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Station since 1988, over the years a number of employees have been promoted or moved to higher positions elsewhere in the industry as a result of gaining college credit and earning a degree through Excelsior. With the launch of the current initiative only a few months removed, there have already been 39 enrollments. As Excelsior’s advising teams visit more nuclear utilities, this number is expected to rise dramatically. Thinger observed that “Excelsior College is only one of two institutions, at this time, that offer a four-year degree in nuclear engineering technology.”

The benefits of Excelsior’s program are clear. “The quality and professionalism of a person who has completed a four-year degree are well recognized,” stated Thinger. Berry, LeClair, and Thinger all believe the current initiative will clearly make the option of earning a college degree more available and attractive to nuclear plant employees and pave the way for new workforce and incumbents to fill a broader level of vacancies and have greater job mobility. And, as LeClair pointed out, “a more well-rounded and better educated employee clearly benefits the individual and the organization.”

Dr. Rolle is dean of the School of Business and Technology at Excelsior College. Interested organizations or individuals can contact Excelsior College at techteam@excelsior.edu or 1.888.647.2388 to initiate a formal evaluation of earned credit and courses needed to complete a college degree.

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