Source: DOE EM Newsletter | September 30, 2016

How can EM build a workforce from the millennial generation or from “Generation Swipe,” young people who are growing up with new levels of comfort with technology? A panel of experts at the recent National Cleanup Workshop concluded it may take new approaches as well as doubling down on well-proven strategies.

In a discussion on “Building the Next Generation Workforce,” Carol Berrigan, senior director of supplier policy at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said attracting and retaining employees is often thought of as a daunting task. But it can be rewarding, she said, “when we look at the next generation of workers and how excited they can be about coming into our industry.” She nicknamed them “Generation Swipe” for their seemingly instinctive capabilities on smartphones and consumer technology.

David Foster, DOE senior adviser on industrial and economic policy, laid out the need ahead for EM: The average age among the agency’s federal workforce of approximately 1,400 people is 52, a decade older than the median age of the U.S. workforce. Of the 22,300-person contractor workforce, almost 15 percent are older than 60 and nearly 54 percent are over age 50. This leaves EM exposed to retirement bubbles.

And while population growth is healthy in communities near cleanup sites where national laboratories anchor research opportunities, such as in Idaho Falls and the Tri-Cities in Washington state, other sites in largely rural communities with declining or slow growth create challenges to sustaining a workforce, he said.

To its credit, Congress has responded, Foster said. Lawmakers in 2015 passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which launched a major reform of the federally funded workforce development system. This presents opportunities for EM to solve long-term workforce issues in partnerships with other federal agencies and state-run systems.

In the meantime, the environmental cleanup industry suffers shortages in occupations such as fire protection engineers, safety-case writers and radiological control technicians, according to industry executives on the panel.

Dyan Foss, global managing director of CH2M’s nuclear sector, said workforce struggles are not unique to the domestic industry.

“I look at our industry and it is not an American problem, it is an industry-wide issue,” she said. That said, Foss added, Canada and the United Kingdom have made advances through skills academies and hands-on training programs tailored to younger recruits.

“They are doing much more than we are doing,” Foss said.

Herman Potter, president of United Steelworkers Union Local 689 in Piketon, Ohio, said he was encouraged by initiatives like EM’s “Science of Safety,” which emphasizes exposing workers to new technology.

“We think that is a fantastic initiative,” Potter said. “From my perspective it takes a fresh look on some old types of training. It actually marries what people already know and actually makes it a little bit new. We want to keep doing that.”

Fred Hughes, president and project manager of Fluor Idaho, the cleanup contractor for EM’s Idaho site, said recruiters highlight the benefits of living and working in Idaho Falls to prospective workers who enjoy the outdoors.

“Second, once you get them in the door, you have to challenge them with interesting jobs that challenge their capabilities and skills,” Hughes said. He said he admired the military for its intensive training and preparation of 18- and 19-year-olds into positions of responsibility. Fluor is attempting something similar by pairing young workers with mentors who can test them.

Ron Woody, county executive of Roane County, Tenn., said the county’s long and strong relationships with local colleges, workforce development boards and building and trades organizations have paid dividends. The University of Tennessee now offers a minor in nuclear decommissioning and environmental management. An environmental technology program established in 1988 at Roane State Community College still is churning out graduates.

“What made that program successful? Scholarships, internships and of course employment placement,” Woody said. “We have to expose the younger generation to the opportunities that exist. We’ve done a pretty good job at Oak Ridge. We still have some challenges. Whoever gets to the youth first may have a career for them.”