The aging workforce: Targeting youth, community and employee retention

John Juliano and Michael Valocchi, IBM Business Consulting Services

In this third installment of a four-part series, IBM Consulting Services focuses on bringing a new generation into the workforce and grooming them for successful long-term careers in the industry.

Nuclear plant external communications experts are finding that community relations programs that have long been in place can, with the right emphasis, be used to start building interest in a nuclear career among young people even as early as fourth or fifth grade.

While some might ask if this is too early, Chris Comfort, president of the North American Young Generation in Nuclear (NA-YGN), an organization of nuclear professionals age 35 and under, believes it’s the right time to introduce the idea.

“That age group doesn’t have the pro- or anti-decision in their head yet, and you can really explain some things; you’d be surprised at what kind of questions they ask. They’re going back home and talking to their parents about it–they really are interested,” he said.

To take advantage of this existing resource, nuclear utilities have stepped up their influence on the classrooms themselves in order to ensure a population of motivated and well-educated young men and women who see great promise in a career in nuclear power. One far-reaching approach is exhibited at Progress Energy’s Harris Nuclear Plant in New Hill, N.C. Harris’ programs touch students as far back as the grade school level. Currently, Progress Energy is sponsoring a “teacher-in-residence” (TIR) program at Harris, under which local elementary schools are developing fifth- and eighth-grade level course materials on nuclear energy and other electricity topics that will eventually become part of the schools’ science curricula. They also work with NCSU to run a summer camp program, partially conducted on-site, for high school juniors and seniors considering nuclear power as a future career option. Progress Energy’s Pamela Oakley, who oversees the TIR program, believes that in addition to serving the community’s educational needs and providing a public relations vehicle for the plant, this approach plays a key role in preparing the pipeline of future employees.

“Through these workshops and programs we are able to make science and math hands-on and fun. The more interest we can generate in young students, the more likely it is that they will develop a career interest in a science-dominated field such as nuclear power generation,” stated Oakley.

Herb Woodeshick, special assistant to the president at PPL Susquehanna, agrees that community outreach programs can be an excellent advertising vehicle for the nuclear profession, particularly in close-knit communities like the Hazleton-Wilkes Barre, Penn. “coal country” in which the Susquehanna plant lies. Their Sabbatical Teacher Program brings one local teacher to the plant each year to learn about how the plant operates, develop key contacts with training center staff, and assist with the plant’s training group with development and improvement of training material. Upon their return to teaching, Woodeshick said, the teacher “is a resource for the school district about how the plant operates, the educational requirements to keep employees properly trained, and has a better understanding of the kind of jobs that are available at the facility and can coach students in preparing themselves for them.”

The role of community

A recent review of attrition data across several industry segments has shown that attrition among employees with less than five years of experience is four to five times greater than that of employees on board for more than five years. So while getting young staff into the plant is critical, strategies for retaining them simply cannot be ignored.

One way all of the utilities we talked to in preparing this article series combat early attrition is to address the issue even before hiring begins. At the craft level, this is done by drawing as much as possible from the local community. Generally, when an employee has grown up in the area and has nearby family and friends, the incentive to stay on for extended careers is much stronger. This, in turn, helps the economic development of the communities, which is why executives like Woodeshick maintain close working relationships with community economic development leaders.

At the degreed professional level, this idea is extended to the traditionally strong relationships with nearby universities. These programs are win-win all the way around—the students get exposure to real-life experience no textbook can provide; the universities strengthen their competitive position by being able to offer programs which include such experience; and the companies get early access to the best and brightest candidates and a leg up on getting them on board upon graduation. Chris Comfort’s prior exposure to the nuclear staff at the Southern Company, for example, was a strong influence in his choosing a job with them over several other lucrative job offers in the industry. There are a large number of such programs in place at the current time, including a growing number which are aimed specifically at targeting women and minority students in an attempt to increase the nuclear industry’s diversity.

Comfort further emphasized that the role of community does not end with hiring. One goal that NA-YGN members at plants pursue is to make sure that new hires feel a sense of community that makes them more likely to build a long career there. “

Some of these plants are in really small cities, and not everyone has lived in that environment before,” he explained. “[The NA-YGN members] are a group new hires can call who have similar interests; this gives them a feeling that ‘Hey, this is a good place to work, I’m not all alone.’ This helps retain that employee; that’s been a big benefit, too.”

Additional benefits

With high school diplomas becoming increasingly insufficient to guarantee job security and professional mobility, another powerful employee benefit (and another way to retain employees) is the opportunity to earn college degrees while working in a meaningful job. This is particularly true among the craft labor force, many of whom have entered the workforce with little or no college-level training.

The Energy Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), a partnership of utilities, labor groups, and industry organizations, is addressing the industry’s concerns about technical education while providing degree opportunities for plant staff. One outcome of this partnership is the creation of an online degree program in nuclear power technology offered out of Bismarck State College in North Dakota. The program prepares workers for positions in operations, health physics, and maintenance, and provides the opportunity to work toward certificates or degrees in nuclear technology.

For those workers who have built up expertise and experience equivalent through their work, a long-standing industry training program is also transitioning into another avenue for plant staff to earn degrees. The National Association of Nuclear Training (NANT), operated by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), was formed to integrate and standardize nuclear training programs across the industry. Now, New York-based Excelsior College has formed a program to allow NANT training accreditation to be used as part of the work required to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology degree. The NANT training is supplemented by online and campus-based coursework and exams administered by Excelsior that allow individuals to acquire and demonstrate knowledge in required areas of expertise.

Juliano is a consultant and Valocchi a partner with IBM Business Consulting Services specializing in the energy and utility industry. Juliano can be contacted at 240-355-6847 or john.juliano@us.ibm.com. Valocchi can be contacted at 610-578-2577 or f.michael.valocchi@us.ibm.com.

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