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October 04, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Workforce challenges widely discussed during Day 1 of ‘Business Opportunities and Technical Conference’

Hundreds of people already doing business with prime contractors or interested in doing business are meeting at the Knoxville Convention Center.

If you are a government contractor in the environmental area, there was no better place to be this week than Knoxville where the Energy Technology and Environmental Business Association (ETEBA) held its annual “Business Opportunities and Technical Conference.”

Now in its 24th year,  the three-day event attracted hundreds of people from across the country for ETEBA’s annual golf tournament on October 3 followed by two days of programming. The event wraps up later on October 5.

The keynote address on October 4 was delivered by Erik Olds, Communications Director for the Office of Environmental Management (EM) in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and a former Chief of Staff for the Office. 

“The next phase of cleanup has been shifted to long-term operations,” he said. “One hundred and seven sites have been cleaned up with 15 left to go.”

In his remarks, Olds identified three challenges that the Office is facing. Ironically and maybe not unexpected, one was the tight labor market, a topic reinforced during a panel discussion that immediately followed his address. 

“EM needs thousands of workers,” he said.

The other challenges were the alignment of priorities across the DOE complex and “climate change,” literally rather than a reference to what is happening politically in Washington, DC these days.

Olds was followed by a six-person panel that included three Oak Ridge-based individuals: Jay Mullis, Manager of the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management; Teresa Robbins, Manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Production Office; and Ken Rueter, President of United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR). The topic was “Prime Contracts Across the Complex.”

For Rueter who has established a reputation for successfully leading UCOR through two different iterations and delivering on its commitments, he said one of the prime contractor’s success factors has been “establishing long foundational partnerships.” It is a pathway for companies that are not traditionally in the cleanup business.

“Be a partner with us,” Rueter advised.

In the case of Mullis, he noted that the Oak Ridge EM expects to have future opportunities and is “always looking for opportunities to expand the (subcontractor) base.”

Robbins talked about Consolidated Nuclear Security, the prime contractor for the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge and the Pantex Plant in Texas, and its “Partners in Excellence” program. 

What are the biggest challenges the local federal officials and Rueter are facing?

Robbins offered one that was surprising. “We have more work underway at Pantex and Y-12 than (we have had) since the Manhattan Project.” 

Rueter said it was doing cleanup work in active production locations at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12. 

Mullis came back to a core issue for all businesses, not just those doing business with the federal government. It is “attracting and maintaining a workforce.”

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