29 April 2015

The Transition: Bringing on Shore Power

Moving from active duty to the civilian world has many challenges. One big difference is that between civilian employment and that of military discipline. I remember the uncertainty and downright fear I experienced during my transition from the Navy. After finding a job, I faced another set of challenges trying to fit into a work environment that was anything BUT one of military discipline. I hope to help my fellow Nuclear Navy brothers and sisters navigate the path from active duty to the civilian side of life. My experiences focus mostly on commercial nuclear power plants and the companies that run them. I’ve made the transition from Bubblehead Nuke to a recognized industry expert in my field (I suppose you’ll have to take my word on that…). Hopefully my experiences can help you lift the “fog of war” regarding your future career choices. We’ll take a look at some of the “work culture” differences between the Navy and the commercial nuclear power world. What’s it like being a member of a union work environment? (Management likes to call them “collective bargaining units”.)

I’ll start with the one thing that was the most different from my time in the military. Here’s a little secret:  NOTHING happens quickly at a commercial nuclear power plant. It can take DAYS to reach 100% power output AFTER the unit is at NOT/NOP and “hot behind the stops”. The other big change? Bargaining units and unions. Full disclosure:  I’ve never been IN a union, never had a permanent assignment to supervise union workers, and grew up in a place where the only union workers were the postal workers. I have a historical and experiential bias, but it’s not personal.

Straight to it - commercial nuclear power is completely compartmentalized. Only operators perform operations work, only electricians work on electrical components, only mechanics work on mechanical components. And, only the rad techs do radiological monitoring and clean up. To “do someone else’s work” is a horrible thing. What that means to a former Navy engineering type is simple: you will NOT be operating the plant on Tuesday, doing maintenance on Wednesday, or repair work on Thursday. Here’s an example: A motor-driven pump is out of service because both the pump and the motor need to be worked. First, the operators will shut down the system, isolate the pump and drain the system. Then they’ll hang the “red tags” for protection. The mechanics will then come in, check the “red tags” for themselves, disconnect the pump from the motor, and then work the pump. The electricians will come in afterwards, check the “red tags” for themselves, and work the motor. When everything’s done, the work groups come back in the reverse order to get the system up again.

There’s a lot of “preparation” time. Each work group will have “morning briefs” and “pre-job briefs” and “safety briefs” and “radiological briefs”. It is NOT uncommon to spend only 90-120 minutes actually “turning a wrench” in a 4-hour morning. If you’re the type who has to stay busy the whole time you’re at work, you might go a little nuts with the processes. 

The other thing is seniority. You think the military has a rigid hierarchy? Everything goes by seniority in the shops. Overtime pick. Shift pick. Crew pick. Holiday pick. Vacation pick. If you stay in the same shop, you’ll have a lot of opportunity to get really good at one or two things. If you’re the type who likes to do one thing, and be the best at it, and you can do that one thing over and over… you’ll thrive here.

The benefits of being in a collective bargaining unit are tremendous. You’ll never be paid less than someone else doing the same job. Pay is OUTSTANDING. Hourly rates in the high $20’s per hour are pretty standard, and time and a half for overtime. YES - overtime is real! And double time for holidays, and then lunch pay, and shift premium, and…etc. Your job is very well protected in a union. It’s very difficult to fire a union worker other than for poor performance. And if there are layoffs, the seniority kicks in again.

In short, great pay, great job security, little to no “job movement”, very rigid seniority structure that commands almost every decision, and you’ll always be doing pretty much the same thing. There’s no way anyone can perfectly describe this environment, but I hope I’ve cracked the window a bit!

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