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Today’s actions, tomorrow’s success – building a resilient nuclear workforce

Paul Spence, Director of Strategy and Corporate Affairs

Paul Spence, Director of Strategy and Corporate Affairs | EDF

6 min read Partner content

This week is Green Careers Week, which aims to highlight the careers open to young people who want to make a difference to the future of our planet.

Yesterday some of our apprentices and members of our early careers team took part in a webinar hosted by WorldSkills UK and Education and Employers, and broadcast to secondary school students across the country to discuss the role that nuclear energy has to play in achieving our net zero ambitions, and the career pathways into the sector.

The campaign comes at a crucial time – the last 10 years have seen a huge change in our energy system as we work towards net zero. But there is a huge task ahead of us to decarbonise the way we generate electricity, to develop a grid big enough to move that electricity around, and to enable consumers to become prosumers and to genuinely engage in energy, enabled by a much smarter system. Achieving this means that we will have to massively multiply the number, and the range of skills, of people working in nuclear to deliver all of these things, all at the same time.

Realising the UK’s nuclear ambitions

The Government’s ambition is to develop up to 24GW of new nuclear capacity by 2050 – more than four times the capacity in operation today. In September, I spoke at a nuclear skills roundtable hosted by EDF during Nuclear Week in Parliament. This brought together Government and industry leaders to consider how we can access and nurture the skills needed to deliver on this ambition, at a time when these skills are in demand by other sectors including defence, the wider energy sector, and infrastructure more broadly. We talked about “nuclear skills and skills for nuclear”, recognising that deep technical knowledge of nuclear physics is a small part of the overall skills requirement to deliver nuclear projects. Skills such as high integrity welding are crucial not only for building a nuclear power station, but all sorts of infrastructure projects, and are typically in high demand and short supply.

According to the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group, the nuclear sector workforce will need to grow 40% by 2035, if the hoped for programmes go ahead. At Hinkley Point C where EDF is building two new nuclear reactors, there are over 10,000 workers at the site as the project approaches the peak of its activity. Government are also readying the development of a replica plant at Sizewell C, nurturing perhaps further GW-scale ambitions, a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) programme, and all while we continue with the operation and decommissioning of the UK’s existing nuclear fleet.

The value of collaboration

During the roundtable, there was strong consensus on the value of collaboration on skills, be this around early careers, upskilling talent, supporting returners, or equality, diversity and inclusion. Participants agreed that we need to build a collaborative mindset on skills, sharing good practice, and looking at where current real projects can help build the skills pipeline for future ambitions.

Another area where more collaboration was seen as crucial by participants was between civil nuclear and defence – including to ensure that those looking at nuclear as a proposition for work see the skills crossover and opportunities this can offer them. The recently established Nuclear Skills Taskforce will have a key role to play here, working across the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall and industry.

Participants also saw value in thinking collectively on how to get funding mechanisms such as the Apprenticeship Levy delivering their full potential. Ideas shared included opportunities to extend the Apprenticeship Levy to upskill current hires, particularly in the context of an industry transforming to become more agile, more digital and delivering huge projects, or for companies to transfer part of their Levy to their supply chain partners - there are already some good examples of how this is helping to address areas of supply chain fragility.

Partnership working with local communities

Working in partnership with local communities and education leaders was recognised as critically important, given that a major project can be an opportunity or a challenge for communities. Yet when they, and particularly their education and skills leaders embrace the opportunity, and when the project teams work with the community to build the aspirations that go with that, this results in real transformation, and a situation where the community thrives over the long term.

A key part of that transformation process starts with schools, and there was agreement in the room on the need to do more to highlight the opportunities within the nuclear sector to schools and young people – which is why initiatives like Green Careers Week are so welcome. At Hinkley Point C, EDF runs a range of education initiatives. Last year alone, over 11,000 young people benefitted from Hinkley Point C’s education programmes, and 724 young people signed up to ‘Young HPC,’ a programme designed to support young people from education into the world of work. More information can be found in our Hinkley Point C Socio-Economic Report

Above all, the skills challenge is about people

We need to avoid the trap of thinking that addressing skills challenges is too hard. The nuclear industry has proven time and again that when it sets its mind to something, it can do it. But let us be clear – addressing nuclear skills challenges cannot wait another decade: it’s something we need to tackle within the next five years if we’re going to be successful. Future projects like Sizewell C, and what comes after, offer a great opportunity to accelerate our skills building and job creation. Great British Nuclear will be a great springboard for the Government and industry’s joint ambitions.

In all of this, we need to remember that the skills challenge is about people. We need to tell inspirational stories that will inspire others, such as the young woman at Hinkley Point C who used to drive people around the site and then trained to become a crane operator. These individually inspiring stories create a ladder into communities in terms of the level of aspiration, and the ability to attract people in. Some of these stories feature in EDF’s recently published Sustainable Business Progress Update.

To quote Einstein, “there is a driving force more powerful than steam, electricity and nuclear power: the will”. Our ability to deliver net zero and realise the full potential of nuclear on that journey will happen because people can envision it, and then have the will and passion to make it happen.

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