Ministers face a major challenge in skilling up the workforce if nuclear power is to play its role in plans to reduce the country's carbon emissions.
Further education colleges play a leading role in equipping the nuclear industry with the skills its workforce requires.
The New Engineering Foundation now says colleges will need more resources as they help the industry rise to the latest challenge – the expansion of nuclear power as part of the Low Carbon Transition Plan announced on July 14.
In particular, training will be needed to ensure the recruitment of the workforce required to build new nuclear power stations – the first of which is expected to be producing power by 2018.
The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan plots out how the UK will achieve a cut in emissions of 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020.
The extra demands brought about by this plan come about as the nuclear industry faces up to another challenge – a high retirement rate in its workforce.
The existing workforce is older than the national industry average and the retirement rate will increase the urgency of recruiting skilled workers over the next five years. Skills are needed at technician and scientist level with a wide assortment of jobs which will need to be filled in the industry.
Even higher-level qualifications, including full degrees, will not be achieved at the required rate unless school-leavers can be convinced to start the journey on vocational programmes up to Level 3 (A-level equivalent), says the NEF.
Train to Gain funding is not sufficient to meet demand from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which feed the nuclear industry. These companies are vital to the success of the nuclear industry because they account for roughly 45 per cent of the 45,000 people working in the industry.
If SMEs are turned away by colleges and private training providers, the nuclear industry will have to outsource to foreign firms – if indeed this is possible – thus denying thousands of UK workers the prospect of lucrative and secure employment long into the future.
Even in these circumstances, it is likely that the timescale for building new nuclear power stations would have to be extended, thus delaying the benefits to the environment.
Professor Sa'ad Medhat, chief executive of the New Engineering Foundation, said:
"The good news is that the timescales are such that today's 16 year-olds can be enrolled for training in time to reach the required skill levels to make a difference. But we have to act now.
"This means both ensuring the funding is in place and finding ways to enthuse today's youngsters about the exciting careers the nuclear industry has to offer.
"We accept the funding is tight and we hesitate to make the predictable argument that nuclear should be an exception.
"But the truth is that the carbon reduction plan makes assumptions about the future expansion of the role of nuclear power – and these assumptions are based on a level of skills supply which does not currently exist.
"While large companies in the nuclear industry are often prepared to pay in full for courses, other smaller businesses further down the supply chain rely on the kind of subsidy which Train to Gain provides. The Government overlooks the needs of these smaller companies at its peril."
The National Skills Academy for Nuclear sets the standard for training through 11 quality-assured colleges and private providers – and more are soon to join.
These include Blackpool and the Fylde College, Lakes College, Bridgwater College, Hartlepool College of Further Education, and North Highland College.
For a full list, go to: http://www.nuclear.nsacademy.co.uk/learners/providers
A recent statement from Cogent, the sector skills council for science and nuclear-based industries, said:
"The workforce is older than, and retires earlier than, the UK workforce in general. This lends a considerable level of complexity, urgency and flexibility to skills planning. The age profile acts most harshly on the higher-skilled and more experienced parts of the workforce.
"Here, up to 70 per cent of current employees will retire between 2009 and 2025. Even without new build nuclear, electricity generating capacity from this source could decline by 90 per cent by 2023.
"Cogent new-build scenarios based on the replacement of current generating capacity suggests that, by 2025, the industry overall will need to recruit some 14,000 skilled staff, mainly of technician or graduate level."
1. Find details of the Low Carbon Transition plan at:
2. Cogent Sector Skills Council: http://www.cogent-ssc.com/index.php
3. National Skills Academy for Nuclear http://www.nuclear.nsacademy.co.uk/