Across many industries, the aging demographic in skilled workforces is a cause for concern. As the average age of engineers and heavy industry professionals moves past 50 in the UK, the question of who is coming through the academic system to replace them needs to be answered.
The much-discussed "nuclear renaissance" of recent years must be propelled by a new generation of engineers if it is to avoid stumbling at the first hurdle. These men and women will need to be familiar with the most advanced Generation III+ reactor designs - as well as ways to improve on them - to drive the industry's efforts to improve the safety, efficiency and the economy of nuclear power.
We talked to Professor Jonathan Billowes, director of education at Manchester University's Dalton Nuclear Institute, and Dr Andy Clarke, manager of Manchester's postgraduate nuclear programmes, about the challenges ahead for nuclear training during a period of unprecedented government spending cuts on higher education in the UK.
Chris Lo: Aging demographics in skilled workforces is a common problem in many industries - do you think nuclear power has this problem?
Jonathan Billowes: Cogent (UK industry Sector Skills Council) has done an analysis on the civil nuclear workforce 2009 - 2025. In that, they find that the age profile for the civil nuclear industry is older than the rest of the UK profile, and in some parts of the industry it's significantly older. So there is a potential skill gap in the medium-term. In the nuclear industry, the age profile peaks in the 45-55 year bracket, where the peak is 35-44 in the rest of the UK industry. So it's a potential problem.
Andy Clarke: There's a chance that the international mobility of students will increase the skill shortage for the UK, as well.
CL: The UK Government has expressed its interest in nuclear power - do you think this will translate into greater public funding for academic and training courses?
JB: Not a chance.
AC: The funding for taught Masters was cut to zero last year, so we now don't have any funding element to the Masters programmes. The Doctorate programme is still funded; whether that continues, I don't know.
JB: What Andy's referring to there is the Nuclear Engineering Doctorate Scheme, which is funded by the Research Council, and they are also funding other doctoral training centres in the nuclear engineering areas. This is a fairly new scheme, and it's tremendously successful at the moment. That's a Research Council initiative, not really a government initiative.
CL: So if anything, you're predicting a period of quite harsh funding cuts?
JB: Quite apart from nuclear engineering, all universities are going to have to find funding by charging the full economic costs to the student. The student fees protests are about this - universities are going to be charging £9,000 per year, so their income will be coming direct from the student, not from the Government. Although your question suggests that the Government is interested in investing in nuclear power, they aren't.
The Lib Dem part of the Coalition does not want to see public money going into new nuclear builds, so it's got to be the private sector that does it. The Government will encourage where they can, but I don't think they'll provide any money. One of the illustrations here is that the Government has just decided to stop paying the subscription to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. There's a meeting next month to try and get the industry to pay that subscription - the Government has just stopped paying it.
CL: Do you think the private sector could step up more in terms of funding training courses and industry collaboration?
JB: The industry is already contributing to the engineering doctorate programme that Andy mentioned; they've partnered with us to provide research places for the research engineers on the programme. They also contribute financially to the projects. They contribute to the Birmingham MSc in physics, and technology of reactors, and they send their employees on our NTEC (Nuclear Technology Education Consortium) programme, for example, which also brings money in to help full-time students. So the industry is investing in this training.
Whether it will increase beyond what it is at the moment, I'm not sure. There's a financial risk in new build, in that I think even EDF is wary about what the electricity price is going to be in the future; they're asking themselves if the commercial business is sound. They need reassurance on that, I think. That's where some of the worry is.
CL: Should the international community be collaborating more to promote standardisation and common training practices?
JB: It's moving in that direction.
AC: We already do. We collaborate across Europe and globally.
JB: In the UK, there's a National Skills Academy for Nuclear that is developing a skills passport to help mobility, and the Europeans are also keen to have a similar scheme to help mobility in Europe. The passport will contain recognised training courses. In due course, there will be a lot more mutual recognition of training.
CL: On a technical level, what new training will have to be incorporated for new nuclear professionals, who could be working on the latest Generation III+ reactors?
JB: Well, over the last few years we've been running the NTEC MSc, so we're still expanding that in the portfolio of modules we have, and the numbers from the industry on that are rising steadily. We are beginning to do more of the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) training, but again, this seems to be starting slowly because there's not that much demand at the moment.
AC: The subjects that we offer are led by the industrial partners that we have. In answer to the question, we're offering the work that the companies are asking for, trying to be quite reactive in terms of what the industry is looking for. So the courses we have are flexible enough to be able to adapt to what the industry needs.
CL: What could academic institutions like Dalton's Centre for Nuclear Energy Technology (C-NET) bring to our understanding of reactor technology?
JB: The primary objectives of that centre are, firstly on the research side, to deliver state-of-the-art research that would directly support the development and deployment of advanced reactor systems, and they'll be working with the regulator, vendors, operators and supply chain companies to undertake research tailored to solve implementation and operational problems of current reactors and the Gen III reactors.
Also, the centre will be producing a pool, probably over the next five years, of about 400 highly qualified and trained people through the research and educational programmes under Dalton and C-NET. So those are the main aims.
CL: What's the role of your CPD programme, over and above undergraduate/postgraduate studies?
AC: CPD is for those who are in the industry. There's flexibility in the system with the CPD programme. With a standard degree, it's bound by the fact that it's a degree, so it has certain requirements in terms of time, marking guides and structures. That might not necessarily be appropriate for someone who wishes to continue their path through their organisation, and the organisation might not wish to put someone through a three-year degree or a one-year Masters.
So CPD has the flexibility to offer exactly what the organisation, or the customer if you like, wants to take. We try to look at the managerial, technical and behavioural facets to continuation within a company context.
That's where the CPD centre really fits in, in that a degree only offers a technical background and it offers it in a degree format. So it doesn't give you the flexibility to make it appropriate to a particular company or a particular position within that company.
CL: Do you both have confidence that academic institutions, in collaboration with the industry, can bring through a new generation of nuclear professionals without much government support?
JB: I think, so far, that's working well. But there are huge changes coming along in the funding of universities. At the moment, I've been trying to find out what the rules are going to be in 2012, and we don't know. The business plan for our Masters course may not work under these new arrangements.
These are uncharted waters at the moment - it's very uncertain. I don't know whether HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] is going to support the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] programmes and the strategically important programmes.
AC: If the Government expects us to become more commercially focussed, it needs to give us time to understand how to form the right business plan.