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Five ways to tackle the nuclear skills shortage

As the head of Rullion’s operation supplying workers to every nuclear site in the UK, James Chamberlain is at the pointy end of the nuclear skills crisis. We speak to him about how companies need to make attracting and retaining talent a top priority – and practical ways they can go about it.

James Chamberlain knows his nuclear.

The Rullion Director of Staffing Solutions spends his days making sure that the UK’s leading engineering and construction companies have the right people to ensure business as usual in the nuclear sector, whether it’s finding skilled tradesmen to join the small city of workers building the new Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, or securing project control managers and quantity surveyors for a decommissioning project.

Number of workers on UK nuclear sites supplied by Rullion: 1600

When asked what type of worker is in hot demand right now, his answer is swift and to the point: “Almost every type. There’s a real disparity in supply and demand for almost every discipline required by the nuclear industry at the moment, both blue and white collar workers, from skilled tradespeople in civil, electrical and mechanical, to project management and controls, cost engineers, planners and estimators.”

As has been highlighted in the media, one of the key challenges is that nuclear is competing for workers with other industries also rolling out big infrastructure projects, in particular, the rail sector with Crossrail and High Speed 2.  


So, what can be done? While the industry is highly pro-active in terms of coming up with initiatives, such as re-training programmes and school workshops, Mr Chamberlain suggests that the industry can, and should, be doing more. And government too, for that matter – even if the return on investment is five or ten years away.

“Every stakeholder in the nuclear industry must take a proportionate responsibility for the skills shortage, and to an extent, I think they do,” he says. “But, given there’s such a huge challenge ahead, Is it enough and is there enough of a return and shared responsibility to motivate the level of commitment required? All of the stakeholders need to treat attracting new workers into the market and developing the talent of people already in the market as one of their top three priorities, if not their number one priority.”

“All of the stakeholders within the nuclear industry need to treat attracting new workers into the market and developing the talent of people already in the market as one of their top three priorities, if not their number one priority.”

However, while new plants are planned at six sites across England and Wales as part of the ‘new build’ programme, only Hinkley Point C is under construction. The rest are at various points along the approvals and funding pipeline. Mr Chamberlain acknowledges that, given this level of uncertainty, it’s very difficult for companies to gauge how much they should invest in talent development. So, with these factors in mind, how does he suggest companies step up to the challenge?

1. Award longer contracts

The more certainty, the more scope for the strategic, long-term planning and investment required. For example, Sellafield Ltd’s Infrastructure Strategic Alliance (ISA) with Morgan Sindall and Arup has a life span of 15 years, subject to performance. The agreement covers the delivery of all non-nuclear infrastructure works on the Sellafield site in Cumbria. “These types of contracts enables companies to really put time into employing people for the long-term and bringing people on as graduates or apprentices,” Mr Chamberlain says.

2. Forge industry partnerships

It makes sense to partner up with other stakeholders in the supply chain to share costs and benefits. Again, the industry in Cumbria is a strong example: Rullion is joining forces with other leading agencies and supply chain partners to launch a social enterprise company which will re-invest profits back into the community, supporting people from all walks of life to start their careers, return to work, retrain or further develop their skills.

Launch at the end of April, the venture could not be timelier. Sellafield is moving from a programme focussed on re-processing to de-commissioning, which will mean thousands of people will need to be re-trained and re-deployed in the not-too-distant future; meanwhile, it was announced in December that South Korean company Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) has won preferred bidder status for NuGen, which has the contract to build a new nuclear plant in Moorside, Cumbria, moving that project a significant step forward.

3. Effectively sell the industry to young people

Let’s face it; nuclear has a far from glamorous image. However, are the massive benefits of working in the sector, such as highly competitive salary packages, being effectively communicated to school and college students? Mr Chamberlain’s not so sure. “It is an incredible opportunity with real stability, and financial security until retirement,” he says.

“I wonder if the industry as a whole is doing enough to really publicise the opportunity to school-age leavers now, in a way that they can relate to.”

4. Better utilise the knowledge of senior workers

It’s widely known that nuclear is a greying industry – far too many people on the verge of retirement, not enough younger workers to replace them. However, are we fully tapping into the knowledge in the heads of older workers? “These people are delivering projects and providing services, but it makes sense to also use them to mentor, train and support the new blood coming through,” Mr Chamberlain says.  

5. Cast the net for workers wider

The skills shortage requires industry and government to widen the scope for attracting workers to specific locations. For example, while there has been a huge amount of work done by owner EDF Energy to encourage Somerset residents to get involved in Hinkley Point C, Rightly to maximise the social impact around the site but Mr Chamberlain questions whether people in other counties are as well-informed about the job opportunities available. “Are we looking at it on a large enough scale and are we getting that message out in the right way?” he says.  

Looking Forward

There’s no sugar coating the fact that the sector is in for an incredibly challenging time, and that there’s a huge question mark over whether it will be able to attract the workers it needs. But challenge is linked to opportunity – and companies that take a longer-term, collaborative approach will gain the edge over competitors.

“There will be challenges, and speculation in the media from many parties casting doubt over whether the new build projects are going ahead, but I will be staggered if they don’t,” Mr Chamberlain says. “All the stakeholders involved are intensely committed to making them happen.”

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