Source: The Oak Ridger | August 3, 2015

The next generation of Y‑12 National Security Complex workers in Oak Ridge may be lured by the promise of new facilities and state-of-the-art technology, but one of the biggest draws remains Y-12’s mission, according to NNSA Production Office Deputy Manager Teresa Robbins.

Young workers “want to learn and grow — and experience new and different challenges every day,” Robbins said during the recent Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit held this year in Johnson City, Tenn. “Fortunately we have that every day at Y-12, because we do so many different things.”

The challenge of recruiting and retaining the next generation of Y-12 workers was at the forefront of discussions at the 20th annual TVC conference. Attendees included numerous members of Congress, as well as 335 industry officials, community members and stakeholders from across the multi-state region.

“It is a challenge for all of us as leaders from our different generations to develop an environment that allows the next set of leaders to be excited about joining us,” said Consolidated Nuclear Security Vice President for Mission Support Darrell Graddy.

Taking part in a roundtable discussion on federal missions across the Tennessee Valley along with Robbins of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Graddy reiterated that those next set of leaders “are SO critical to the continued success of this country.”

Lighting the Fire

While Y-12 has been delivering on its nuclear mission since the 1940s, Robbins noted Y-12 technology and experience can be leveraged in the nuclear science, non-nuclear science and nonproliferation arenas, providing a draw for young professionals.

That has been borne out prominently in agreements with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that allow professors and students the ability to work in Y-12 facilities and get hands-on experience with what goes on at the site.

“Once they see some of our capabilities, it ignites a spark that says, ‘Hey, if we do some research on this, maybe we can turn it into X … whatever X may be,’” Robbins said. “It may be a new innovation for solving energy problems of the future, nuclear medicine, space propulsion, alternative fuels — any of those things.”

That kind of spark is necessary for addressing the potential shortage of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields; and Stephanie Hill, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Ship and Aviation Systems Unit, emphasized the importance of doing more to energize the next generation —especially girls and minorities — about STEM in a separate keynote address at the summit.

“We really need them to have an interest,” said Hill, noting that by second grade “many girls have decided math isn’t for them.

“We can’t have that anymore,” she said.

Hill noted there are projected to be eight million STEM jobs in the United States by 2018. However, 1.2 million of those jobs could go unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers.

“We also need our manufacturing workforce to have a strong foundation in these fields,” Hill said. “Our workforce is going to have to be better educated than it ever has been.”

Hill acknowledged she was “lucky” to have stumbled on her career path as an engineer, beginning college as an economics major with a strong background in science and math before turning to engineering.

“We are headed in the right direction, and I’m certain we’re going to see a change in the way our society recognizes and rewards students who show potential in the STEM subjects,” Hill said. “Too often, we miss out on a large swath of potential science and engineering professionals because they don’t look like the scientists and engineers in those old NASA photos and news clips.”

She added: “To really be a great nation, we need to do a much better job reaching out to young girls and minority communities to help them access STEM educational opportunities and really see themselves as future scientists and engineers.

“This is where each one of us must do what we can to promote a change in the way our society regards STEM subjects.”