Y-12’s broad mission viewed as lure for future workforce

Posted: July 30, 2015 - 3:52pm

The next generation of workers at Y‑12 may be lured by the promise of new facilities and state-of-the-art technology, but one of the biggest draws remains Y-12’s mission, according to NNSA Production Office Deputy Manager Teresa Robbins.

Young workers “want to learn and grow and experience new and different challenges every day,” Robbins said during the Tennessee Valley Corridor National Summit in Johnson City, Tenn. “Fortunately we have that every day at Y-12, because we do so many different things.”

The challenge of recruiting and retaining the next generation of Y-12 workers was at the forefront of discussions at the 20th annual TVC conference, which was attended by Consolidated Nuclear Security executives and NPO officials, like Robbins.

The event also was attended by Reps. Chuck Fleischmann (R), Phil Roe (R), Marsha Blackburn (R), and John “Jimmy” Duncan (R) as well as 335 industry officials, community members and stakeholders from across the area. CNS is a Gold Level member of the Tennessee Valley Corridor Leadership Council and a sponsor of the summit.

Robbins took part in a roundtable discussion, along with CNS Vice President for Mission Support Darrell Graddy on federal missions across the Tennessee Valley.

“It is a challenge for all of us as leaders from our different generations to develop an environment that allows the next set of leaders, who are so critical to the continued success of this country, to be excited about joining us,” Graddy said.

While Y-12 has been delivering on its nuclear mission since the 1940s, Robbins noted that Y-12 technology and experience can be leveraged in the nuclear science, non-nuclear science and nonproliferation arenas, providing a draw for young professionals.

That has been borne out prominently in agreements with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville that allow professors and students, the ability to work in Y-12 facilities and get hands-on experience with what goes on at the site.

“Once they see some of our capabilities, it ignites a spark that says, ‘Hey, if we do some research on this, maybe we can turn it into X, whatever X may be,’ ” Robbins said. “It may be a new innovation for solving energy problems of the future, nuclear medicine, space propulsion, alternative fuels—any of those things.”

That kind of spark is necessary for addressing the potential shortage of workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and Stephanie Hill, the vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Ship and Aviation Systems unit, emphasized the importance of doing more to energize the next generation—especially girls and minorities—about STEM in a separate keynote address at the summit. Lockheed Martin is among the parent companies of Consolidated Nuclear Security, and Hill previously was the vice president and general manager of the company’s Information Systems and Global Solutions Civil unit.

“We really need them to have an interest,” Hill said, noting that by the second grade, “many girls have decided math isn’t for them, and we can’t have that anymore.”

She noted that there are projected to be 8 million STEM jobs in the United States by 2018, though 1.2 million of those jobs could go unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers.

“We also need our manufacturing workforce to have a strong foundation in these fields,” Hill said. “Our workforce is going to have to be better educated than it ever has been.”

Hill acknowledged she was “lucky” to have stumbled on her career path as an engineer, beginning college as an economics major with a strong background in science and math before turning to engineering.

“We are headed in the right direction, and I’m certain we’re going to see a change in the way our society recognizes and rewards students who show potential in the STEM subjects,” Hill said. “Too often we miss out on a large swath of potential science and engineering professionals because they don’t look like the scientists and engineers in those old NASA photos and news clips.”

She added: “To really be a great nation, we need to do a much better job reaching out to young girls and minority communities to help them access STEM educational opportunities and really see themselves as future scientists and engineers. This is where each one of us must do what we can to promote a change in the way our society regards STEM subjects.”