“If I only knew then what I know now!”
I was having a conversation with a friend who had spent years working full time while putting himself through college. His business degree had landed him a good job in the corporate support organization of a large electric utility. He was happy to have it and his smarts, maturity, and work ethic had served him well.
Yet to some extent he lamented his choice of a four-year business degree because he saw friends in nuclear technical fields advancing faster and earning more money. Rather than being graduates of four-year colleges or universities, many had started their careers with an associate degree, military training or a certificate in a skilled trade. In many cases this meant they began earning more at an earlier age and had little student loan debt. If my colleague had been aware of these opportunities he may have chosen a different path. In the least he would have made an informed decision.
Even in the highly technical field of nuclear energy there are many jobs that do not require a 4-year degree for an entry-level position. Most of these have starting wages of about $50,000 per year (more if you include overtime and bonuses). In each of these positions there is an established career progression. Pay increases as you complete company-provided training and achieve higher levels of qualification. I have known many coworkers in these types of jobs who with just two or three years of experience routinely earn more than $100,000 per year with overtime and bonuses. Even better, these positions are the entry points for supervisory and management positions meaning there is opportunity for long-term career growth.
So what are these great jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree? Here are some examples:
Radiation Protection Technician (also called health physics technician)
Radiation protection technicians monitor radiation levels throughout the nuclear energy facility. They also maintain and calibrate radiation protection instruments and equipment. They play an important role in helping fellow employees work safely in areas where radiation levels are greater than natural background.
Electrical Technician (also called nuclear electrician)
Electrical technicians install, repair and maintain the highly complex electrical and electronic equipment in the nuclear plant. They work on power plant equipment like motors, circuit breakers, electrical cables, switchgear, generators, transformers, and batteries.
Instrument & Controls Technician
I&C technicians are the “industrial computer technicians” in nuclear energy facilities. They install, test, calibrate, troubleshoot, and repair nuclear plant instrumentation and control equipment and systems.
Mechanical Maintenance Technician (also called nuclear mechanic)
Mechanical maintenance technicians keep all the power plant and reactor mechanical systems and equipment running smoothly and reliably. They install, test, and repair equipment like pumps, valves, piping systems, heat exchangers, air conditioning, and emergency diesel engines.
Nuclear Plant Operator (also called non-licensed operator)
Nuclear plant operators start up, monitor, shut down, and test systems and equipment throughout the nuclear energy facility. They also ensure equipment is properly removed from service so that maintenance may be safely performed. Once work is complete they return the systems to service. The nuclear plant operator position is the first step in becoming a licensed reactor operator or senior reactor operator.
When I speak to young people about careers in the nuclear industry I often suggest they consider an alternative to starting with a four-year degree; instead why not start with an associate degree from a community college leading to one of these positions. Later you can return to school using the company’s tuition reimbursement program and earn your bachelors degree. This approach is far less costly and gets young people into the workforce sooner with a highly marketable set of skills.
Demand is high in all of these positions. Each nuclear energy facility employs more than 100 workers in these types of jobs. Today there are 100 nuclear energy facilities in operation in the USA and 435 around the world with another 70 under construction (four are under construction in the USA). The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 14% increase in the number of nuclear technician jobs between 2010 and 2020. That number understates the real opportunity because their data does not include hiring needed to replace retiring workers. Over the next several years the need to replace retiring workers means utilities in the United States will be hiring thousands of workers into these positions. These skills are readily transferable to other industries too (petrochemical, advanced manufacturing, and other energy industry segments).