Guest column: It’s National Engineers Week

It’s National Engineers Week and I want to encourage readers not to sell themselves short in planning their career paths, writes John Wagner, Ph.D.

As I contemplated a column for National Engineers Week, Feb. 18-24, my thoughts turned not to the typical newspaper reader, but to their children and grandchildren: our future.

I work at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), as head of nuclear science and technology. I imagine it is difficult for young people to envision themselves as engineers at the nation’s lead laboratory for nuclear energy research and development. Yet, INL has an extremely bright future to offer young people, and, if cultivated, engineering can become their passion through which they can make a significant positive difference.

To be sure, there are brilliant engineers at INL, child prodigy types who were taking apart and rebuilding grandfather clocks and similar devices by their fourth birthday. But there are many more like me. I was a normal kid with an interest in science and an aptitude for math. I enjoyed the outdoors, hung out with friends, and looked up to my parents and brothers. Before and following high school graduation, I also immersed myself in a lawn-mowing business and worked as a clerk at Kroger Foods.

Then my moment of clarity arrived. The head clerk at Kroger asked if I was interested in someday replacing him. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a grocery clerk, but his offer, at that time, helped me realize that was not my calling. I wanted to make a difference. Thankfully, I had science and math classes to build upon. They were my foundation as I attended the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and found my calling in nuclear engineering. My career eventually led me to Idaho, and a national laboratory that can, as our Laboratory Director, Mark Peters, says, “Change the world’s energy future.”

As of now, nuclear energy produces nearly one-fifth of America’s electricity and more than 60 percent of its carbon-free electricity. And yet, we are at a sobering crossroads. Too many of the nation’s nuclear power plants are being closed prematurely, and new projects are being postponed or abandoned. This safe, reliable, and clean source of power generation, which contributes so much to our economy, environment, and power grid stability, will continue to struggle unless the scientists and engineers of today and tomorrow rise to the occasion.

We are entering a new era of nuclear energy production. INL has been at the forefront of small modular nuclear reactor technology that could revolutionize the industry. By 2021, we hope to demonstrate an even smaller reactor, with the potential to power remote communities, military bases and communities devastated by natural disasters.

For the next generation of nuclear engineers, this is a land of opportunity. It’s a chance to reinvent an aging industry, and it carries the potential to mitigate climate change and bring power to 1.3 billion people who currently have none.

At INL, 30 percent of our workforce is at least 50 years of age and approaching retirement. We are staring down a critical shortage of scientists and engineers, the people we need to drive innovation and create the clean energy that will power our future.

Obviously, your children and grandchildren do not need to decide their careers today. But I urge you to consider the importance of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education foundation. Encourage the inclusion of STEM classes in their education. Help them overcome struggles in these areas and watch them blossom on whatever path they ultimately choose. After all, our next generation of artists, English teachers, librarians and grocery store clerks will be rounded and prepared after having taken STEM classes.

A few of those children may even become nuclear engineers, and lead breakthroughs that change everything. Ideas and ideals, when married to technical proficiency, can save the world, but only if we are prepared to seize opportunities when they arrive.

Wagner is associate laboratory director, nuclear science and technology Directorate, at Idaho National Laboratory.