An aging workforce and new nuclear construction open the door to great careers for America’s returning veterans.
By Kathleen Ganster
While job opportunities in many fields are still hard to find, the nuclear energy industry is hiring – and hiring military.
“We have had over 5,000 openings a year for the last four years and we predict another 25,000 openings by 2016,” says Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, senior manager of Workforce Policy & Programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
According to McAndrew-Benavides, there are five new nuclear power plants under construction: two in Georgia, two in South Carolina and one in Tennessee. The new plants, along with an aging workforce, will create new jobs in the field, she says. In fact, an estimated 39 percent of the nuclear workforce will be eligible to retire by 2016, the NEI predicts. “Many of our employees from the initial boom in the ’70s and ’80s will be retiring soon,” McAndrew-Benavides says, “and they will need to be replaced.”
There are nuclear power plants in 31 states, providing opportunities in numerous geographical locations.
Not Just Navy Nukes
The military, particularly the Navy, has provided a “constant flow” of employees to the nuclear industry, McAndrew-Benavides says. Veterans have superior leadership and problem-solving skills that lend themselves to numerous career opportunities in the nuclear energy industry.
“While the veterans in the Navy are obvious candidates, military personnel have wonderful skill sets that make them perfect for other jobs,” she says. “We have nuclear lawyers, accountants, human resources positions, support personnel, security positions – the whole gamut.”
Salaries tend to be above average in the nuclear energy field, according to NEI statistics. “Salaries are 35 percent higher than salaries of other local jobs,” says McAndrew-Benavides. Electrical technicians have an average salary of $67,571, a position that requires only a high school education, she says.
The nuclear industry is so committed to military personnel that 35 companies recently signed an agreement with the Navy to ensure there will be enough qualified employees to fill the dearth of opportunities in the next few years. This program will help those separating from the military seamlessly transition into nuclear careers, awarding credit for military experience. The two-phase project includes the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program, which will help prepare students at designated community colleges to fill positions in the Navy and help prepare veterans for jobs in the commercial nuclear industry.
Exelon recruits and trains veterans to be senior reactor operators.
Exelon has a “wide variety of great career opportunities,” says Dee Torres, talent acquisition manager.
Headquartered in Chicago, the bulk of Exelon’s openings are in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Texas. According to Torres, veterans are commonly recruited for initial license trainees to become senior reactor operators at nuclear plants, first-line supervisors (overhead, underground, substation, supply and maintenance), equipment operators, electrical field engineers, security positions, meter readers, utility trainees, facilities technicians for ground maintenance and HVAC, electricians, instrumentation and controls, mechanics, chemist and radiation protection specialists. There are also numerous openings in the IT field.
Torres says the salary ranges are very competitive, with excellent benefits – including tuition reimbursement for undergraduate and graduate school.
Exelon also participates in the new program with the Navy to help Sailors transition to civilian life.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to connect with these highly skilled veterans by utilizing this database,” she says. “We really hope they look at Exelon as a good place to work and to use these skills.”
Exelon values not only the skill sets that transfer directly, but the leadership, focus, discipline and attention to safety – a must in the nuclear industry, Torres says.
“Plus, we also hope to provide them an environment that allows them to learn and grow in their careers,” she says.
Clear Career Path
Joining the Navy was a purposeful decision for Rebecca Springer, 29, who chose to pursue a nuclear career.
“I wanted to gain experience and skills that would allow me to find a job after I left the military,” she explains.
Now an IMD Outage Scheduler with Exelon, that decision paid off.
“I love the work and it is a great career field. We are paid well, there are lots of opportunities and you can really advance in the industry,” Springer says.
While she worked as an electronic technician/shutdown reactor operator in the Navy, Springer also pursued a bachelor’s degree to better her options once she separated from the military. Additionally, Springer is taking advantage of tuition benefits and completing an MBA.
“I strongly suggest that anyone in the military get an education. You have the knowledge, you have the skills – the opportunities are out there,” she says. “I would have started working on my own bachelor’s degree sooner.”
Springer urges other veterans to explore the nuclear energy industry. “You don’t have to work shifts – I think everyone thinks that about this industry. But I don’t and many others don’t,” she says.
“This was just such a good decision for me – I think others should look in our industry,” Springer says.
Nuclear, or Not
Ameren recruits veterans for all kinds of jobs.
In the energy industry, there are certain military backgrounds that are obvious fits, most notably those veterans with Navy nuclear backgrounds. But other military careers provide good experience for the industry as well, says Betsy Miller, supervisor, Workforce Planning and Development for Ameren, which provides energy services to approximately 2.4 million electric customers and 900,000 natural gas customers across 64,000 square miles in Illinois and Missouri.
“We see veterans hired into almost any part of our organization,” she says. “But in particular we see them in our generation fleet – both nuclear and non-nuclear – and we see many veterans in our engineering roles.”
Ameren provides numerous apprenticeships for various craft journeymen, positions for which they provide the training. “And the veterans can use their GI Bill for on-the-job-training,” she says.
Salary ranges vary with experience, education and geographical locations, says Miller, but are very competitive, and there are excellent benefits. For an example, Miller says skilled craft journeymen earn about $60,000 to $70,000.
The leadership ability, work ethic, technical ability and attention to detail are a few of the attributes many veterans bring to the civilian world, says Miller, skills that are attractive to many roles at St. Louis-based Ameren.
“We also find that whatever situation the veterans are in, they can handle them,” Miller says.
Honing skills in Iraq
Crystal Masek, 34, a supervisor in nuclear maintenance at Ameren Missouri who serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, says her experience while deployed in Iraq for two years provided her with technical and leadership skills that help in her role with the company.
“Growing as a leader in the Army has built me to want more out of my everyday interactions with people and life,” she says. “It’s a desire for teamwork and success, much like what you see within Ameren.”
The opportunities to challenge herself in her technical and leadership skills are attractive to Masek, and the experience of supervising her Soldiers is much like mentoring the employees she works with every day, she explains.
“The Army Reserves is hardly a part-time job any longer,” she says. “It takes commitment and if you want to succeed in this industry, you need commitment.”
Bright future of nuclear energy means long-term careers for ex-military.
Like other energy companies, Southern Company officials underscore the growth of the industry in a tight economy.
“The energy industry is growing, thriving, developing in new directions, and employing increasing numbers of workers in every community in the nation. In uncertain times, it is a vibrant field to enter, and one that offers excellent job security,” says Susan Story executive vice president, Southern Company, and president and CEO for Southern Company Services.
According to Story, there are numerous opportunities for veterans.
“Southern Company subsidiaries are actively recruiting veterans for a variety of potential positions across the company,” she says. “For 2012, 47 percent of the new hires for the advanced reactors being built at Plant Vogtle are veterans. For the 21st century coal plant under construction in Mississippi, it’s 21 percent.”
The most-recruited positions across the company include plant operators, shift support supervisors, information technology positions, security officers, technicians and line workers.
“We have found that veterans gain a unique set of skills from military service necessary to fill positions in a variety of areas, ranging from line worker, plant operator, shift support, technicians and information technology,” Story says.
No Nuclear Experience
John Gerdes is one of those veterans who didn’t have any experience in the nuclear field, but the Air Force veteran has found a good match with Southern Nuclear in his role as a cyber security engineer. Gerdes, 28, says his military experience as an automatic test systems engineer and his focus on security for his military career are an obvious plus to his civilian job.
“I consider it a different facet of the same work I was doing in the military: helping keeping our country’s people safe,” he says.
Gerdes says the opportunities, and excellent salary and benefits, make a career in the nuclear energy field a good choice for any veteran. “Plus the job security – I knew this is an industry that will just continue growing,” he says.
Southern Company pays competitive salaries with excellent benefits, Story says. Salaries vary with education, experience and job duties.
The military culture lends itself to a career at Southern, according to both Gerdes and Story.
“Veterans are a natural fit for Southern Company because the cultures of the military and the utility industry are very similar. Both prize commitment, discipline and dedication – and that’s why the veterans who have joined us at Southern Company are not just participants, but leaders in our company,” Story says.
Gerdes agreed. “Southern has a regimented culture that is much like what we had in the military. It was the only life I had ever known, so it was a smooth transition for me. This is the perfect fit.”
U.S. Navy, commercial nuclear industry and community colleges team up to provide jobs and education to veterans.
The U.S. Navy has long been a pipeline of talent for the commercial nuclear industry. With a worker shortage looming due to an aging workforce and an increase in demand for electricity, the Navy and the nuclear industry have stepped up their collaboration to ensure there are enough skilled workers to mitigate the shortage.
A new two-phase partnership between the commercial nuclear energy industry and the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program helps Navy veterans transition to civilian jobs and helps the Navy recruit qualified enlisted personnel from community colleges.
The Navy Agreement of Understanding created the first systematic program that allows personnel separating from the Navy to “seamlessly transition to civilian employment,” according to Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, senior manager, Workforce Policy & Programs, Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
“U.S. nuclear navy veterans have long been recruited by the U.S. nuclear energy industry because of their ability to easily transition into our civilian workforce,” she explains. “The Nuclear Energy Institute and U.S. Naval Reactors developed the Navy Agreement of Understanding program to help streamline the process to place veterans into our vacancies.”
Nuclear-trained Navy personnel separating from the military now have the option to have their contact information provided to industry recruiters with the nearly 35 companies that have signed the agreement. NEI will continue to expand this program to other companies.
Nuclear education for all veterans
The second phase of the program is the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program, which will help the Navy recruit qualified personnel for enlisted positions and help veterans who lack nuclear skills and experience to obtain the necessary education for jobs in the industry. The partnership includes 38 community colleges that have worked with the commercial nuclear energy industry to develop curriculum that trains students for positions in the Navy and veterans for careers in industry.
“The community colleges will benefit two-fold from the Navy Agreement of Understanding. First, their graduates have a new career pathway into the military,” says McAndrew-Benavides. “Second, veterans who want to work in the nuclear energy industry, but do not have the nuclear skills or knowledge, can use their GI Bill benefits to attend a training program that directly aligns to the industry.”
McAndrew-Benavides says the agreement will help address the impending shortage of workers in the nuclear energy industry.
“The Nuclear Energy Institute predicts that up to 39 percent of the commercial nuclear workforce will be eligible to retire by 2016. The industry will continue to hire both entry level and mid-career professionals to replace these retirees. Establishing the Navy Agreement of Understanding program is timely because it will help the industry solidify one of our workforce pipelines.”
The program, says McAndrew-Benavides is a “win-win-win program.”
“It helps the U.S. Navy, industry and the participating individuals,” she said.
Not a Navy Nuke? No worries.
You can still get a good job in the nuclear industry.
You don’t have to be a Navy nuke to earn a good living in the nuclear industry. Companies like The Shaw Group, an industrial construction company, are recruiting veterans for a variety of positions – including a litany of industrial skilled crafts.
Lacy Kiser, 40, a former Marine Corps corporal who now serves as vice president of Human Resources and Administration for The Shaw Group’s Power Group, said they are hiring veterans for jobs ranging from laborers and pipefitters to truck drivers and warehouse workers. Shaw is looking for carpenters, electricians, mechanics, ironworkers, welders, as well as technical and professional employees in the civil/architectural/structural, mechanical and electrical disciplines.
“Shaw employs workers in most all of the industrial skilled crafts, many of which match well with the Military Occupational Specialty codes,” says Kiser, who served as an embassy guard in Vienna, Austria and Dakar, Senegal. “The company also is recruiting for positions in accounting, human resources, controls, environmental safety and health, and information technology.
The leadership veterans learned during their service make transitioning military attractive employees, Kiser says.
“Whether its logistics and supply chain management, electricians, engineers or welders, we are looking for individuals with leadership qualities,” Kiser says. “The ability to lead themselves and the potential to lead others is a quality that is critical to our daily project execution and the future of our company.”
Veterans need to be flexible and willing to travel, he says.
“Mobility and travel are key requirements to work in the industrial construction industry,” Kiser says. “A willingness to enter into a lower- to mid-level trainee position will afford the opportunity for advancement. Also a willingness to participate in formal craft skills training affords many employees the opportunity for continuous employment and career advancement. For those exiting the military with flexibility on geography and willingness to participate in continuous learning, they will thrive in this industry.”
Here are jobs The Shaw Group is recruiting veterans for:
- Concrete Finisher
- Equipment Mechanic
- Rod buster
- Sheetmetal Worker
- Truck Driver
- Warehouse Worker
Exelon recruits veterans for initial license trainees to become senior reactor operators at nuclear plants. The median salary is $85,426 per year for senior reactor operators, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Actual earnings may be higher due to overtime, bonuses and incentive compensation.
St. Louis, Mo.
Ameren recruits veterans for its generation fleet, both nuclear and non-nuclear jobs, as well as engineering positions. The company also offers apprenticeships for various craft journeymen, and veterans can use their GI Bill benefits while they train. Skilled craft journeymen earn about $60,000-$70,000 per year.
The most-recruited positions at Southern Company include nuclear plant operators, shift support supervisors, information technology positions, security officers, technicians and line workers. The average salary for nuclear technicians is $68,090 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary for nuclear security officers is $72,000, but can vary greatly depending on company, location, experience and benefits.