At a recent Idaho Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) meeting in Pocatello, Premier Technology Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder Douglas Sayer (pictured) testified that his Blackfoot-based design, engineering, manufacturing and construction management company is on the horns of a very challenging dilemma.
Since its start in 1996, Premier Technology has grown to employ about 300 highly skilled professionals, including engineers and machinists, at its cutting edge 210,000-square-foot fabrication plant conspicuously seen west of Blackfoot’s main Interstate 15 interchange.
Its welders are stringently trained to work with a variety of metals, ranging from stainless and carbon steel to exotic elements such as titanium.
Premier has done extensive sophisticated custom work for the Idaho National Laboratory and other U.S. Department of Energy contractors, but Sayer told LINE commissioners at Idaho State University that it’s a misconception to believe that private companies securing government contracts have grabbed brass rings.
He said it’s an uphill battle for relatively small businesses to get bank loans for such contracts as they struggle to make large capital investments. Only about half of Premier Technology’s business mix is related to the nuclear industry, Sayer noted.
“Food processing and mining allow us to participate on the nuclear side,” he said, mentioning that if it were up to his wife Shelly, Premier’s chief executive officer since 2013, the company would not be involved in the nuclear business due to its significant expenses and difficulty breaking even. Premier has heavily invested in research and development for new technologies.
Premier believes it has a moral obligation to maintain top quality levels of manufacturing to protect the environment and Idaho’s Snake River Plain aquifer, Sayer said, but pointed out companies in such countries as India are not held to the same standards or pay scales, making it more difficult to compete.
Competitors in Missouri and the United Kingdom see the economic advantages of developing Small Modular Reactors as the wave of the nuclear industry’s future and are aggressively pursuing the development of SMRs. NuScale Power has indicated it could start placing orders for SMR components as soon as 2019.
“We’re a little bit behind the eight ball if we want to get serious about it,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has imposed 60-hours-per-week mandatory shifts at its plant to keep up. “We’re short on human capital. … There’s a shortage of qualified talent in Idaho now.”
Unlike Chobani, which can tap the resources of the College of Southern Idaho, a community college in Twin Falls, for its yogurt plant employment needs, the nuclear industry’s requirements demand much higher training proficiencies. “There’s a difference between teaching and training,” Sayer said.
The Premier Technology executive urged LINE committee members to create a subcommittee to address the compelling need for trained, qualified personnel in the nuclear industry and initiate an effective strategy. The INL needs “top shelf talent” and is not a place for on-the-job training, Sayer stressed. “We’ve got to think outside the box.”
He also emphasized that Idaho ranks among the lowest states in terms of education investments. “We can’t wait any longer,” Sayer said, adding Premier Technology has considered acquiring oil and gas companies in Utah and Wyoming to secure their pipeline welding talent.
He also noted there is a large difference between nuclear performance-based welding requirements and those of the petroleum industry. Many if not most welding instructors in ISU’s College of Technology hail from the oil and gas industry. Idaho has not addressed the dire need for nuclear-qualified welders, machinists and crafts, he said, mentioning he has been working with ISU for 15 years.
“Five years ago I could operate every piece of equipment in our facility. Today I cannot operate any of them. That’s how far manufacturing has advanced,” Sayer said.
Premier Technology offered someone in Carlsbad, N.M., a quarter million dollar salary, a $50,000 relocation stipend and six weeks vacation to move to Idaho, but the individual turned it down because he was making the equivalent amount working part time, Sayer said. “And Carlsbad is not the prettiest place on earth,” he remarked.