The Economics of a Migrant Nuclear Worker

nuclear workerEight year ago I applied for a temporary job to earn some extra cash, today I have made a career out of working several of those temporary jobs.  Being a skilled migrant nuclear worker comes with many benefits and drawbacks that are difficult to weigh.  Striking a perfect balance is difficult and some seasons it will be achieved and others it just isn’t there.

I started working at the nuclear plant in my area. I was hired as a laborer for the refueling outage at about twice the pay rate I was making as a cook at KFC.  This job was life changing. I was working 60 hour weeks at the plant, a couple shifts a week at KFC to stay on payroll, and carrying a full time college course load.  I had been able to save a little bit of money while working at KFC, but working this outage kicked it into overdrive, since I kept working at KFC I was able to save the lions share of my outage pay, which set us up to purchase our first home later that year.

Six months later Mrs.C. and I had purchased our first home and I had received a call to work the next outage. I had received a decent pay bump and was being brought in a few weeks early for our projects online work. I completed my 2 year Associates degree and had applied and been accepted to Western Michigan University to complete my degree.  I was at a serious crossroads, after weighing my options I decided to take a break from school and focus on maximizing my income.  I worked that outage and at the end I was asked to stay for an extra two weeks for demobilization, When all was said and done I had earned almost as much working 9 weeks as I made all year working in fast food.

When the next outage season rolled around I was called up to travel to another nuclear plant. Mrs C. was extremely hesitant about it. My step son was 3 at the time and it was really difficult for him as well.       The job was only a month long, but it is a major transition from being home every night to being gone solid for a month.  When the outage was over I hadn’t made as much as I expected to, and Mrs C. was not a fan of being home alone and essentially a single mom for the time I was gone.  We decided that I wouldn’t travel anymore. This worked for the following 2 years and I focused on school and working the home plant outages.

In 2009 I was invited to work for another company where instead of staying for the entire outage, our crew flew in, worked for a couple weeks, flew home, then came back for about a week on the back end.  This balance worked a lot better for us and I started traveling again.  I soon found out that not all jobs are like that, and sometimes we have to stay the whole time, or roll straight from one job to the next. As I am writing this I am currently away from home for the longest period of time I have been since I started this career, which is a total of 6 weeks straight, some of my cohorts spend months away from home at a time.  I graduated from college in 2011, but with how much I am making working outages, so far it has not been worth the tradeoff to switch gears and look for a “professional” job.

Feast or Famine:

While my goal is to work about 20 weeks a year, and be gone less than a month at a time, AND have the majority of these weeks be worked at my home plant, the nature of the business doesn’t really allow for that.  For the most part refueling outages only happen in the spring and the fall. Sometimes my employers have a lot of jobs and sometimes they have few jobs.  Sometimes jobs start early and finish late, causing you to miss other jobs you had lined up. I have seen some people make over $30K working several jobs in the spring season, then get only one job in the fall season.  This type of variable income is difficult to live with and some people just can’t adapt to it. Essentially I have to be willing to work more when there are a lot of jobs available and be able to live on less income when there is a slow season.

For people with seasonal income and especially variable seasonal income, having a “hills and valleys account” is essential. This is in addition to an emergency fund.  Calculate out basic living expenses for the months when you won’t be working or will be working very little, calculate out the deficit, and then aim to put that amount of money aside when there is a good season.  In the nuclear world, we usually have 3 months off at a time, so in funding my hills and valley account, I look at 3 months of expenses against the income Mrs. C. brings in, and then ensure that I put enough in the hills and valley fund to cover the delta for those three months.

Holidays and Life Events:

Because of when outages occur, from time to time nuclear workers miss holidays. So far I have missed 3 Easters, 2 Halloweens, and 1 Thanksgiving.  I missed my son’s 2nd birthday, I also missed my own college graduation. I wasn’t home when the family dog passed away.  I was working a job that was local when my sister in law passed away, had I been traveling at the time arrangements and the grieving process would have been much more difficult and I most likely would have had to miss out on the entire job.  Other major events such as house repairs that normally I could fix if I were there, end up costing a lot more because I have to pay someone to do it, rather than do it myself.

Partially Retired:

Last year I worked 120 days.  Only 20 of these days were travel days.  Someone with a normal job would have worked 50 weeks 5 days a week for 250 days total, about twice as many days as I worked.  Because I only worked half the days of someone with a normal job, I view myself as partially retired.  I have not achieved financial independence from work, so I still need a job, but I am able to work essentially half time.  My job also allows Mrs C. to work less than full time and spend more time with the kids. She normally works less than 1,000 hours a year, last year was a special scenario and she hit around 1,500 hours.

Nature of the work:

I work for multiple employers at multiple nuclear sites and every job is unique.  Even when working for the same employer at the same site a year later, the job itself is different. We go through a lot of training both classroom and computer based on various aspects of our jobs, such as Plant access, radiation worker, confined space, respirator, and foreign material exclusion.  All of these courses come with tests that must be passed with at least an 80%.  Most tests can be taken a second time, but it is rare to get a 3rd chance.  Passing all required courses and getting a badge is a condition of employment, so failing a test twice can result in loosing the job for that outage.

Our work requires high attention to detail, excellent procedure adherence, rigorous documentation, and of course hard physical labor in suboptimal environments.   We work long hours, typically 12 hour days 6 days a week.

What I do:

I work on ice condensers and steam generators.  These systems are almost polar opposites. Ice condensers are full of ice, so they are extremely cold (imagine working in a giant freezer), and have extremely low radiological dose, and no contamination. Steam generators work is hot and carries higher radiological dose with it.  On steam generators I work on manway removal and installation, nozzle dam removal and installation, and as an eddy current platform tech. For ice condensers I am a supervisor for the ice project at one of the ice plants in the US. I have also worked on a cavity decon job and on a scaffold crew.  I can see in the future the possibility of working on snubbers, control rod drives, dry cask storage, and various other tasks.

With these type of jobs you are always being vetted.  A poor performance at one job with one company can result in problems not just with that employer, but with other employers as well, because the people you work with on this job work for other employers too and are often asked by those employers to find other people when they have openings. Having your phone # in your coworkers phones and them knowing you are a high quality worker is the primary way to get more jobs.

The Money

The thing is, you are not really being paid per hour, you are being paid by the day. When I am “off” while traveling for work, I’m not really off. I can’t play with my kids, I can’t work on projects at the house, I can’t hang out with my wife.  When I am on the road I try to fight for every hour of pay I can get because I am not here to sit in a hotel room.   When I calculate out how much I earn, I also calculate how much I earned per day on average. This helps me acuretly measure the tradeoff of being gone vs. making bank.

Pay: On average technicians make 20 something an hour. There are some companies that start out at less, and some companies that will pay a bit more. I made $14 an hour on my first job. Most employers offer quick raises once they see that an employee is a decent worker, but there is a ceiling. Taking on supervisory roles can result in higher rates. People shop around and make their own best deal. Some jobs pay OT after 40 hours, while others pay OT after 8 hrs in a day. OT is where we make the most of our money. Missing 1 day of work is straight off of OT pay.

Per Diem: When traveling companies pay tax free money, called per diem.  This will vary wildly by company.  Some pay a straight per diem rate and the employee covers his hotel, transportation, and food costs.  Other companies pay for hotel rooms and transportation and the employee is given a smaller per diem amount to cover meals and incidentals.  Per Diem is where a lot of nuclear workers really make their money.  It isn’t uncommon for a few guys to rent a house together on a job and be careful with their expenses and be able to save $100 a day in tax free money for the entire job.  For those of us on meal and incidental jobs, it is still possible to save a decent amount of tax free cash, but just not to the extent that people getting straight per diem can. What makes this benefit even better is earmarking the unspent per diem for funding a Roth IRA.

Mileage Some jobs pay a flat rate for driving to a job while others pay for mileage. My employer typically will fly us, but will often give the option to drive, and reimburse at the federal mileage rate, but only up to the cost of a plane ticket. For most of our jobs the limit won’t apply because the flights are relatively expensive. This can be a great option for someone driving an inexpensive, already depreciated yet still reliable fuel efficient car. After paying for fuel, the employee is banking about 40 cents per mile in tax free money. A site 600 miles from the house then delivers about $1,000 in tax free cash on the jobs where we go home in between.

Unemployment: Many people who work as contractors qualify for and receive unemployment compensation when they are not working.  This will vary from person to person and from state to state. in “The good ol’ days” If you worked in more than one state you could claim unemployment benefits in any state.  This law changed several years back.  Since unemployment benefits are decided by each state individually, there is a big difference between filing a claim in a low benefit state and a high benefit state. currently the highest per week benefit state is $653 in Massachusettes and the lowest is $235 in Mississippi.   Under current law you have to work in, or live in the state in which benefits are being claimed.  Most states pay benefits for up to 26 weeks on a benefit year. Michigan is the only state I am aware of that has a cap of 20 weeks.

Stipend Pay: Some employers bypass the unemployment system for employees and pay a stipend during the weeks of the year they aren’t working. This amount is typically fairly close to what unemployment benefits pay, most of the numbers I have seen are between $400 and $600 a week.

Benefits: For the most part, migrant nuclear workers do not have any employer benefits. There are some companies like GE, AREVA, and Westinghouse that have full time workers who do receive benefits, but the majority of the outage workforce is composed of contractors.  We have to setup and cover our own health insurance, life insurance, retirement, etc.  There is no sick pay, vacation pay, etc. I think all nuclear workers should start up an IRA through Betterment.  It is extremely easy to get started and set up automatic contributions, the fees are low, and Betterment takes all of the guess work out of investing.  You can start an account with only $100 and every dollar is instantly invested across several low cost index funds. Having an IRA increases your tax deductions and can qualify you for the retirement savers tax credit.

Having a real job too: A few people I know also have full time employment elsewhere that allows them to take a leave of absence to work an outage here or there.  It is difficult to find a job that will allow for this, but for those who are able to work it out they are in a position to really maximize their income.

Double Dipping: Some people are able to make it work with having their spouse be a nuclear worker as well.  Both are working crazy hours, making good money, have the summers off, and both are getting per diem.  While traveling with a friend and sharing hotel and vehicle expenses is relatively normal, getting to do this with a spouse puts all the extra money in the bank.  This obviously works best for couples who do not have kids, or whose children are grown.

Going in house: Several of my co-workers over time have gone in house. I know 4 operators, a couple I+C guys, and a couple RPs that started out as contractors and were able to make the transition to an in house job.  The benefits of being in house of course are a steady paycheck, benefits, and sleeping in your own bed every night.

Conclusion:

I love being a nuclear worker. I get to work with a very diverse group of people and make a ton of money while doing it!  There is a lot of pressure, and traveling gets tough, but at the end of the day I think the tradeoff I make in time is worth how much we make and the total amount of days off I end up with every year.  Overall this game is best suited for young, mobile single men with no kids. There are always trade offs to make and these type of jobs certainly can put a strain on relationships.  To date I have turned down several jobs, and probably over a hundred thousand dollars in order to strike a good work life balance.  I plan to continue working in this industry for a while and may even work substantially more part time than this in my first phases of retirement.  I can see working about a month a year to cover our basic expenses and delay harvesting from our nest egg in my late 40s and 50s. If you are interested in a career in nuclear power, check out this book, The Essential Guide to Getting a Job in the Nuclear Power Industry: How To Secure Full-Time Employment or Contract Work.

Any questions on what it’s like to work in Nuclear Power as a contractor? 

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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