Viewpoint: Digitalisation and nuclear power

23 February 2018

Nuclear companies have some of the most technologically advanced projects in the energy industry. Yet, perceptions of digitalisation are somewhat skewed, write Janette Marx and Hannah Peet.

Younger consumers frown upon nuclear as an outdated industry. Because of this, many people are quick to believe that the technology is outdated. Looking at advances like small nuclear reactors, that couldn't be further from the truth. There does seem to be some reticence to embrace digital technologies. Nuclear workers were the least likely to say that digitalisation was a positive development (75%) and the most likely to be unsure of its impact (18%).

While young outsiders may be sceptical of nuclear, the situation inside the sector couldn't be more different. Workers aged 25-34 were very enthusiastic. This attitude extends to digitalisation, with 87% saying that digitalisation and automation were positive developments for the sector. For years, the nuclear industry has excelled at combining skilled individuals with cutting-edge technology to generate some exciting projects. Digitalisation adds to the precise knowledge set that nuclear workers possess and helps them do their job better.

Automation may be advantageous for one of the biggest problems facing the sector: an ageing workforce. Professionals and hiring managers are far more concerned about skills shortages than any other sector. The ageing workforce could spell trouble for nuclear businesses if they fail to recruit enough new entrants to cover all the work that needs doing. Automating operational processes can help provide coverage in areas where human oversight or knowledge isn’t as critical. That said, hiring managers need to be cognisant of the operational benefits.

Nuclear hiring managers were much less likely to view increased productivity (44%) and efficiency (51%) and reduced costs (41%) as benefits of digitalisation than their peers across the energy industry. Some nuclear facilities, especially in the USA, are coming under financial strain. Reducing costs will become even more crucial for companies. More managers need to embrace the operational upsides of automation.

In slight contrast to hiring managers, professionals rated efficiency and productivity as the top benefits of automation and digitalisation. Flexible and remote working also ranked highly.

Digitalisation isn't just reshaping how the energy industry functions - it is causing companies to think differently about how they form their workforce. Because technology talent is increasingly at a premium, sectors are having to adapt their recruitment approaches in an effort to enhance their appeal. Some sectors, such as nuclear and oil and gas, will need to address the perception that they are lagging when it comes to technology.

The energy industry looks set for a bright future as it continues on the path to digitalisation. We look forward to seeing how the various sectors adapt their recruitment strategies as growth makes the quality and quantity of talent even more imperative.

Skills gap

The nuclear industry is on the verge of a massive skills gap as much of the workforce retires.

Among nuclear workers, the ageing workforce was resoundingly ranked as the biggest challenge the sector faces in the next three years. At 65%, this figure was much higher than that of the next closest sector, oil and gas (39%). Additionally, nuclear was the only sector where the majority of workers were concerned about the impact of an impending skills gap. Hiring managers are feeling the pressure and were more likely than their peers to rate the ageing workforce, skills gap and recruiting and retaining talent as impending challenges.

Compounding the issue is the specificity of the skills required. Much of the technology used in the sector is unlike anything else and proficiency requires lengthy training. Nonetheless, there are many skills that can be transferred and adapted from other sectors, such as project management.

Transition into nuclear isn't easy, but it's less daunting than a lot of hiring managers realise. The learning curve still takes some time - thus, training begins to play a critical role. Yet, training is an option that hiring managers in nuclear are comparatively slow to exercise.

Seventy-four per cent indicated that they would rely on implementing new training and development programmes to meet their needs for new skills - high as a standalone total, but the lowest such figure for any sector. This may be the result of an industry bias. Most hirers in the sector will only consider individuals with nuclear experience. The idea of training workers from other sectors is often overlooked.

Hiring managers in nuclear often have a more closed mindset when it comes to where experience comes from. This creates a preference for a talent pool that is getting drained by the day.

In terms of the more general skills required to accommodate digitalisation, cyber security tops the list. Nearly three-quarters of hiring managers cited this as a skill in demand, far higher than the industry average. As nuclear facilities remain high on the list of cyber terrorism targets, the importance of this skill won’t abate.

Additionally, younger professionals see a growing need for the skills associated with more innovative technologies, namely data analytics and cloud technology. Workers between the ages of 25 and 44 were more likely than hiring managers to report this demand.

Janette Marx and Hannah Peet

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Janette Marx is chief executive officer of Airswift and Hannah Peet is managing director of Energy Jobline.

This is an abridged version of the second annual Global Energy Talent Index (GETI), the energy recruitment and employment trends report, which was released on 21 February. GETI 2018, the second edition of the GETI series, is based on a survey of 20,826 respondents, from 163 countries and 151 nationalities.