The need to recruit and retain scientists and engineers remains a common theme among U.S. government agencies. The nuclear enterprise is no exception. Throughout the Department of Energy and Department of Defense, the colloquially named “gray beards” provide the technical expertise. The average age of engineers involved in all aspects of the nuclear enterprise from stockpile stewardship to nuclear monitoring and forensics is increasing as it becomes more difficult to recruit young scientists into the field.
While all fields in government agencies face challenges recruiting young scientists, the field of nuclear engineering has a unique problem: it is based on tests and developments completed decades ago. We live in a fast-paced age of constantly changing and upgrading technology but use nuclear weapons designs that have not changed in decades. Young scientists want to be at the leading edge of technology, but it can be difficult to understand where that fits in a field that is perceived as simply maintaining rather than advancing the technology. We need to tell our story and show how the nuclear field is continually growing, pushing the technical capabilities, and that there are still many exciting aspects to stockpile stewardship and nuclear monitoring.
The potential for higher salaries in the private sector also hinders the recruitment of young scientists to government agencies. Unless they are passionate about the subject and service oriented, why would top young scientists work in such a budget-constrained environment?
Lastly, agencies face constant budget restraints and hiring freezes imposed by the now annual delay in determining the federal budget. Many companies keep their work force growing by creating pipelines. This can be difficult in an environment where hiring freezes prevent a steady influx of new talent. We need to increase the awareness of federal nuclear engineering job opportunities, further complicated by limited connections with recent graduates.
Even among the military, getting involved in nuclear engineering often happens by chance. For example, I studied physics as an undergraduate but at my first assignment in the Air Force I found myself doing nuclear engineering. I ended up enjoying the mission of nuclear treaty monitoring and chose to pursue a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. We need to work on making the nuclear field known, rather than letting young scientists stumble into it by chance.
The federal nuclear enterprise is on a precipice where the aging experts who actually lived through and worked on nuclear weapons tests are retiring without anyone to whom they can pass their knowledge. We must capture the broad expertise of our nation’s nuclear engineers and also inspire a new generation to follow in their footsteps in order to grow technical expertise, or we risk losing the technical edge.