In the wake of the recent Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy, the U.S. nuclear industry is facing a daunting challenge to rapidly expand the workforce while also ensuring needed diversity, equity, and inclusion.

To start identifying recommendations for accomplishing this vital task, the Accelerating the Energy Workforce Development Workshop was held Monday at POWERGEN International 2024. Outcomes from the workshop, facilitated by the nonprofit U.S. Women in Nuclear organization, will help in the creation of a report offering recommendations on developing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce as energy industries gear up for rapid expansion.

What is exactly the size and scope of this challenge? Representatives of Idaho National Laboratory, who moderated the workshop, set the stage for what the industry faces.

It is well-known that diverse perspectives allow companies to craft more effective solutions. Despite this, and even though half of the global energy workforce is in clean energy, only 26% of the energy workforce is female and 24% minorities. One major challenge identified when it comes to staffing for nuclear energy is a small applicant pool, with many of those applicants not having the technical skills needed. In addition, the need for jobs in nuclear energy is quite diverse, encompassing regulatory, construction, manufacturing/supply chain, wholesale trade, professional and business services, and more.

The goal of this small and very interactive roundtable discussion was to help attendees identify ways to develop a diverse pipeline and ensure gender equity and a growth plan for the industry.

Four expert panelists addressed the situation from three key angles: readiness, recruitment, and retention.

Concerning readiness, Kimberly Cook-Nelson, executive vice president of nuclear operations and chief nuclear officer with Entergy, said her company employs a variety of initiatives, starting with working as early as the elementary school level in the communities it serves, to reach the potential future energy workforce. As stated above, employees needed for the industry include accountants, human resources, electricians, and more as well as engineers. At the university level, Entergy’s efforts include providing $7 million in grants and scholarships to historically black colleges and universities and working on a radiation protection program at a Mississippi university that has translated to 19 employees for the company.

On the topic of recruitment, Erin Hultman, vice president of member and corporate services and chief financial officer with the Nuclear Energy Institute, said it is important to understand the size and scale of the challenge. Among NEI members alone, which represent just over half of all nuclear production in the U.S., it is anticipated nuclear production will more than double over the next 10 to 15 years, based on plans (not aspirations). In addition, about 300 small modular reactors may be installed, with “everything that goes along with that,” Hultman said.

Finally, regarding retention, Nicole Hughes, director, North America Nuclear at Thomas Thor, pointed out that while developing a career path for employees is nice, one caveat is it’s not an approach that works for everyone. Kara Temple, MBA, member of the board of directors at Allied Power, shared her own experience with regard to retention in the industry. She recalled working at a company where she took the initiative to set up three rotation opportunities for herself with office directors, only to have her boss deny her request to cross-train, three times. Temple said it’s important to create a holistic experience so employees can try different things, even potentially offering them the opportunity to move to different locations within the company so they can find their best fit.

Hughes left attendees with a memorable impression of the challenges, and how changing the way they’re viewed can yield results: “The rainbow-colored unicorn you’re looking for might not be available. Maybe a zebra might be a better fit for you,” she said.

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