Mentoring Nuclear Power Plant Engineers

Mentoring Nuclear Power Plant Engineers

As the Nuclear Power Plant workforce continues to age, it is imperative that nuclear plant supervisors and managers use as many tools as possible to mentor younger engineers. This article discusses several ways proven to be successful in mentoring younger engineers as a means of filling the voids created by the retirements of senior workforce individuals. These tools are also be effective in retaining younger engineers.

The Aging Workforce

It is well known that one of the nuclear power industry’s challenges is addressing its aging workforce. In a 2015 Article [Ref. 1], Power Engineering Magazine cites the following statistics:

  • “The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that 39 percent of the nuclear workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2018, which means the industry must hire 20,000 new workers over the next four years to replace those retiring workers.”
  • “About 40 percent of the work force at America’s electric and natural gas utilities will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. About 20 percent are eligible now. Who’s going to replace them?”
  • “According to the Department of Labor, as much as 50 percent of the nation’s utility workforce will retire in the next five to 10 years. The challenges associated with replacing the technical and institutional knowledge of these professionals will be significant.”
  • “To further illustrate the sense of urgency, here are some eye-opening statistics compiled by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a non-profit consortium of electric utilities and associations:
    • Almost 62 percent of utility employees have the potential to retire or leave over the next decade
    • Nine percent are “ready to retire now” based on current retirement assumptions
    • It is estimated that 36 percent of employees in positions that the industry deems as critical may retire or leave for other reasons and another 16 percent will exit by 2020.”
  • In addition, this same Power Engineering Article noted that “The 2013 report also found that the turnover of utility employees during their first year was significantly higher, rising from 2.3 percent in 2011 to 5.5 percent in 2012.” That last statistic indicates that managers and supervisors need to pay close attention to fulfilling the needs of the younger engineers to avoid significant and continual turnover in personnel.

In 2013 [Ref. 2], the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) presented the potential impacts of knowledge loss to the NRC. Those impacts identified by the NRC are equally applicable to the utilities themselves. The impacts identified by the NRC are summarized as follows (NOTE: Certain words were slightly modified to be more applicable to the utilities):

  • Knowledge Loss Factors:
    • Increasing Retirements
    • Mid-Career Transfers
    • Increased Workforce Mobility
    • Work/life Issues
  • Knowledge Loss Leads To:
    • Potential Decrease in Efficiency
    • Increased Risk of Errors
    • Slower Evaluations
    • Potential Decrease in Effectiveness
    • Negative Impact on Overall Performance

The Newer Workforce

becht engineers


In order to increase the effectiveness of any mentoring efforts, it’s important to first understand the typical characteristics of the newer generation.



Paros & Kelly [Ref. 3] summarize those characteristics as:

  • Work Preferences: Entrepreneurship, diversity, various types of communication, low loyalty, challenge status quo
  • Characteristics: Ethnically diverse, globally conscious, confident, technically adaptive, and capable of multi-tasking

And the authors offer the following recommended Techniques for Engagement:

  • Do not undermine their contributions to the project or treat them like children
  • Provide continuous feedback and assign more senior project team members as mentors
  • Be comfortable with them multi-tasking and working on multiple scope elements at once
  • During project planning consider using cutting edge technology
  • Allow for new and challenging opportunities when assigning projects or scope elements

Based on two separate studies, a 2010 NRC Presentation [Ref. 4] offered the following insights of the Younger Generation:

Top 3 Career Goals

  1. To have work/life balance (70%)
  2. To be dedicated to a cause or to feel that I am serving a greater good (48%)
  3. To be a leader or manager of people (38%) 

What the Younger Generation Enjoys Most

  1. Colleagues
  2. Challenges
  3. Variety in Work

What the Younger Generation Dislikes

  1. Inflexible work schedules
  2. Organizational politics
  3. Resistance to change

Needs in Order to Succeed

  1. Structured, clearly defined career development paths
  2. Goals and ways to achieve them
  3. Tangible measures of performance with frequent feedback

Effective Mentoring Tools

Being a good Mentor within your staff/organization means creating a relationship that (Adapted from Ref. 5):

  • Encourages your staff to ask everything they individually (and everyone else) want to know but were reluctant to ask,
  • Allows your staff to feel comfortable coming back and asking the same (or similar) questions again,
  • Develops members of your staff to be capable of taking your job (in the future),
  • Encourages them to take on tasks that may be outside their comfort zone.

Mentoring Tools & Techniques – The following concepts summarize some of the key tools or mentoring techniques that I have found to be successful in mentoring younger nuclear plant engineering personnel:

  • Identifying organizational priorities and key areas of knowledge needed to accomplish their work (Adapted from Ref. 6)
  • Updating and maintaining policies and procedures to ensure that the explicit knowledge embedded in them is kept current and correct. (Ref. 6)
  • Identifying needed changes to existing training and qualification programs to incorporate current expert knowledge. (Ref. 6) An example would be to utilize rotational assignments – even if not formerly endorsed in your organization.
  • Sharing the Workload – Don’t take on all the work yourself. Ensure better outcomes and avoid burnout by delegating to all your team members (not just the high performers).
  • Identifying and sharing critical knowledge and experiences of Subject Matter Experts (SME).
  • Creating some degree of duplication – but you need to plan for the worst (e.g., what some people call “What happens if a key individual were to get Hit by a Bus?” Cross-training can mitigate the risk of a key person (with a head full of knowledge) not being available.
  • Providing your team members with formal (or informal) training opportunities. The time spent training pays dividends later.
  • Creating opportunities for a specific area’s “back-up” individual to perform the evaluation/analysis, even when the specific area’s “primary” individual is available.
  • Making Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) available; but use them wisely! An SME can be an extremely valuable asset, but make sure that your expectation is that the SME transfers their knowledge to the permanent staff individual assigned to that area. Good examples of this “tool” are Becht Nuclear Services Answer-Man Support services and Becht Technical Training Classes. Both tools provide effective means of supplementing the traditional approaches to knowledge transfer.Becht’s Nuclear Answer-Man Service: (a) Permits plant staff engineers to call Becht Nuclear Service SMEs and obtain prompt technical and regulatory guidance to solve problems; (b) Provides the correct technical solution while also providing on-the-job mentoring and transfer of knowledge from SMEs to plant staff; and, (c) Is available 24/7. The primary focus areas of Becht’s Answer-Man Support are:
    • Technical support in mechanical and structural engineering analysis, qualification, operability, and regulatory perspective for ASME systems and components and their support structures.
    • Technical input to operability assessment of ASME systems and components, in accordance with NRC regulations and guidance.
  • Encouraging your staff not to hesitate in identifying when they may need some help. You may know of an SME that is internal to the organization that may be available.
  • Developing (and maintaining current) what I call “Books of Knowledge.” Utilizing a type of “Book of Knowledge” Is applicable to long-term multi-disciplined projects as well as to specific technical areas. Examples of the information that can be included (but not limited to) in this type of “Book of Knowledge” are:
    • Bibliographies (including hyperlinks to the documents themselves, when possible) that provide a listing of the key documents associated with what are the “drivers” for the project or specific technical area. This bibliography should include the key Design Basis/Licensing documents; as well as, relevant Operating Experience.
    • A copy of those documents to be stored in the Organization’s work area, if electronic copies are not readily retrievable.
    • The Manager’s (or Project Manager’s, as applicable) specific expectations for certain activities that do not warrant being formalized in an Organization’s procedures.
  • Ensuring that individuals in your organization are aware of the wealth of Operating Experience (OE) information that is available to them.
    • Most engineers in a Nuclear Plant are aware that INPO and EPRI provide significant sources of OE. But as a Mentor your job is ensure that the engineers know how to readily access these sources:
    • However, younger engineers may not be aware of the OE information that is available through the NRC Website ( As an effective Mentor, one of your tasks is ensure that the engineers know how to readily access information on the NRC Website. In addition, there is quite a bit of information available through documents (even though they might not be current) such as Circulars, Bulletins, Information Notices, etc. Just because the NRC documents haven’t been recently written, the issue(s) addressed in those NRC documents may still be relevant to the activity of concern today.
    • The Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or sometimes even their competitor can provide information related to past problems with the equipment and even the “fixes” for those problems. As a Mentor, encourage your staff to contact these vendors.
    • Industry Working Groups quite often have databases or forums that would allow the engineer to do searches or make inquiries as to “their problem of the day.”

Importance of Operating Experience (OE)

becht nuclear engineersI cannot stress enough the importance of being able to access and review OE as a means to effectively mentor and transfer knowledge to younger engineers. In my experience, the most significant example of the impact of not being aware of important OE is the partial meltdown of TMI-2 in 1979. This accident was caused by a sequence of similar events that had occurred previously in 1977 at Davis-Besse, without the partial meltdown. The failure of the Nuclear Industry to correctly understand the significance of the Davis-Besse event put the TMI Operators in exactly the same position eighteen months later. [Ref. 7] This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history and had dire consequences for US Nuclear Industry. 


This article is intended to share with mentors some techniques that have been shown to be effective in assisting younger engineers filling the voids created by the retirements of senior workforce individual and improving the retention of young engineers. It is not the intent of this article to provide a cookbook or a checklist to success on how to mentor young engineers. All of the suggested tools may not be viable for all organizations. I readily admit that the tools listed above have come about through trial and error. The tools listed hopefully provide either some new (or at least some alternative) ways for a Mentor to approach developing young engineers. My last thought is that if you are not already aware of (and understand) the concepts provided in the “Newer Workforce” portion of this article, I’d suggest you re-read that section. Knowing your audience is essential to you being successful. If you have other “tools & techniques” that you would like to share, please comment (below) on this Blog.


  1. Ray, Russell, Chief Editor, “Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force?” Power Engineering Magazine, dated 02/05/2015 (
  2. Figure A-2 – “Impact of Knowledge Loss and the Benefits of Knowledge Retention (modified from NRC 2013),” from Knowledge Transfer Report for Dr. Michael Masnik, March 2015, PNNL-24124, (ML15083A038).
  3. Paros, Amy KB & Kelly, Patricia S., “Leading Project Teams That Span Across Generations,”11th Annual Project Management Professional Development Event, presented April 25, 2016.
  4. Spradley, Leah, “Young Generation Perspective on the Nuclear Industry, IAEA International Conference on Human Resource Development for Introducing and Expanding Nuclear Power Programs, Abu Dhabi, UAE, March 14-18, 2010, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission(ML100341458).
  5. Barrett, David & Vincent, Sandee, “Business Analysis Book Of Mentors 25 Lessons Learned From Seasoned BA Professionals, First Edition Stringbean Publishing Toronto, Ontario.
  6. Hudson, Jody L. & Cohen, Miram, & Ficks, Ben & Steger, Christine, “IAEA CN-220-343, A Model of Effective Governance for Knowledge Management: A Case Study at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (ML14300A476).
  7. Derivan, Mike, “The Davis Besse Nuclear Power Plant Three Mile Island Accident Precursor Event, September 24, 1977,” 2014 Slide Presentation.


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About The Author

Michael C. Annon, PMP, is a Senior Engineering Advisor with over 45 years of engineering, managerial (including Nuclear Oversight), training and management consulting experience at ~50 Nuclear & Fossil Fueled Power Plants, and several Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. Authored multiple technical, project management and training related papers. Career included employment with Stone & Webster, Gilbert Associates, Proto-Power (Zachry Engineering), Northeast Utilities (Millstone) and I&C Engineering Associates. His areas of expertise include project management & management consulting, Instrumentation and Control (I&C) and electrical systems as applied to design, licensing, startup, testing, operations and interfacing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

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