Aging experts: Y-12 finds creative solutions to replacing skilled retirees

11/22/2017

As a chunk of the workforce at Y-12 National Security Complex approaches retirement, the nuclear component manufacturing facility has to ensure specialized personnel on their way out the door are replaceable.

According to Ellen Boatner, spokeswoman for Y-12 managing contractor Consolidated Nuclear Security, around 43 percent of the Y-12 population is eligible to retire with a full pension within five years. About 55 percent can retire with a full pension in the next 10 years.

Special site work requires specialized skill

The Y-12 complex is a bit of a mish-mash of aging Manhattan Project and Cold War-era infrastructure, with some modernizations.

Chemicals and other hazards that trade workers wouldn't necessarily come into contact with in the world outside a weapons plant are common at Y-12. Pipes are made of everything from copper to black iron to glass.

Journeyman wireman Ron Price said he's been at Y-12 for 30 years.

"Everything we work on is anywhere from 50 to 60 sometimes even 70 years old," he said. "The thing about electrical equipment, it can withstand that as long as we maintain it."

Maintaining the infrastructure can be a challenge, though, with such old pieces and parts.

Workers will sometimes go looking for a replacement part or a reference book and find out the companies that made them went out of business years ago.

"A lot of things here were custom made," said Journeyman pipefitter James Durham. "They're one of a kind, so you really have to use your knowledge base here to make sure the new parts work the way the old ones did."

Y-12 restarted an apprenticeship program in 2008 to keep the pool of knowledge full.

 

"Most of the people we have hired as apprentices have been very successful at that transfer of knowledge," said Joint Apprenticeship Training co-chair Beth Green. "They realize that they have a primo opportunity that most people do not get."

Durham came to the plant as a laborer and went on to become an ironworker apprentice. He eventually topped out and switched over to pipefitting. He has since mentored two apprentices of his own.

"It's not too difficult to teach," Durham said. "Someone just has to want to learn it and be able to learn hands-on. The added benefit is I get an extra pair of hands around."

Before the apprenticeship program, retiring employees were being paid to stay on because they were so difficult to replace, Boatner said.

Now, senior employees get face-to-face work time with apprentices as they learn the ropes at the complex.

"Then, it's letting the expert retire once you felt comfortable with this person," Green said. "So it's less money being spent now."

Preserving knowledge

Before apprenticeships, Y-12 relied on another initiative called Knowledge Preservation Management (KPM) to document need-to-know information for workers on the site.

"KPM basically started with retirees leaving the factory," said Rick Lewis, who manages the program.

We started out with identifying retirees and capturing interviews with those folks to put in our knowledge bank," he said. "It was at that point that we realized we didn't really want to wait until somebody was walking out the door to get that."

The need to collect critical skills knowledge at Y-12 is not a new problem. The weapons complex saw the urgency behind archiving information in 1994 when John Googin, "the scientist of Y-12," died of a heart attack while changing a tire on his way to work.

Googin was integral to developing the plant processes to separate isotopes of uranium and other elements — processes eventually used to create the atomic bombs that ended World War II.

"We use that as an example because you never know when critical skills are going to be suddenly unavailable," said David Henderson, another KPM manager.

Still, Lewis said, knowledge preservation management doesn't replace on-the-job training.

"It just makes it more efficient," he said.

Now, the guides the KPM team produces and the apprenticeship program complement each other. 

"The team works to identify critical skills across all facets of Y-12 operations, anywhere from fabrication and material streams to technology development and product assembly," Henderson said.

Capturing trade knowledge can sometimes be a 25- to 30-step process. The team starts by meeting with managers who can help them track down the right subject matter experts to interview.

"Though sometimes, it's really getting the experts to interview each other," he said, "Because they know the questions to ask."

In the interviews, experts talk about the biggest challenges on the job and film employees doing hands-on production, equipment repair or troubleshooting.

They also go out and harvest old information collections workers find around the plant.

For instance, Googin left behind a few black-and-white videos. The pockets of legacy information the team finds help workers see how processes have changed, improved or become more regulated.

"We've got different generations in between then and now," Henderson said. "But we still are capturing critical skills information moving forward. The intent is not just to lock it off, preserve it and use it in case we need it."

Then they tack on relevant reference books, graphics and other things to create a richer learning experience. That way, apprentices can get exposure through the videos and references beyond what they get with their mentors — who aren't always available.

"The intent is to preserve the cycle and feed it back into the new and current workforce so the information is used not just to maintain, but also to improve our processes," he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brittany Crocker

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