CONCORDIA, Kansas — Recent high school graduate Leah Benne isn’t worried about the job market. She’s in her freshman year of a two-year program at Cloud County Community College and when she graduates with a degree in wind technology, she expects to have her pick of jobs — most of which pay at least $40,000. a year to start.
“The training is fun, the industry is fun and it feels like you’re doing something important while getting paid a pretty penny,” said Benne, 18.
She is one of hundreds of students across the country enrolled in renewable energy training programs. But schools still cannot meet the demand of employers.
For people who have worked in related fields, there are even fewer educational barriers to getting a job as a wind technician.
How does climate change affect you?: Subscribe to the weekly Point Climat newsletter
LEARN MORE: Breaking news on climate change from the USA TODAY
Energy Companies Need Technicians Amid Green Power Expansion
There is such a demand for people to work in large-scale wind and solar farms that many companies will hire and train people without specific experience in the field. But a two-year community college degree is a solid foundation that allows graduates to progress quickly to leadership.
“There are more jobs right now than we can hope for students,” said Michael Gengler, wind professor at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. “I get one or two emails a week asking me, ‘How many students do you have? Can we walk into your classroom and come talk to them?'”
What is green energy? What to know about renewable and clean energy like solar and wind power
What is carbon dioxide? Here’s what to know and how it contributes to global warming.
At Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas, Renewable Energy Program Director Michael “Kit” Thompson tells a similar story.
“Energy companies come to us and say, ‘We’re going to hire 100 of your students,’ and we have to tell them that we only have 20 looking for jobs right now.”
Wind projects are struggling to find qualified technicians, said Neil James, vice president of maintenance and operations oversight for Apex Clean Energy. “Given the expected growth for the renewable energy industry, we anticipate these challenges to continue.”
Wind technician jobs are the second fastest growing jobs in the countryjust behind Nurse practitioners. The renewable energy workforce currently employs more than 443,000 Americans, said Jason Ryan of the American Clean Power Association.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the the median salary for wind technicians is $27.05 per hour or $56,260 per year.
“Last year, we hired over 200 wind and solar technicians, and we continue to recruit more talent this year to meet our expanding project portfolio,” said Kevin Schroeder, Senior Vice President, Operations and Engineering for the renewable energy company Invenergy.
What do wind technicians do?
Wind technicians are people trained to work on wind turbines and in wind farms. They inspect turbines, visually or with drones, repair cracks in fiberglass turbine blades, and work on motors and electrical systems in the turbine nacelle.
Some of the work is done 300 feet or more in the air. “It’s very difficult,” Thompson said.
A cloud graduate, Barry Watkins worked as a truck driver for decades, then decided to retrain for a job that seemed important. Now 48, he loves his new career. This month, his team is performing a six-month service on 95 turbines. This involves changing filters, checking lube and hydraulic levels, and greasing blade bearings, much like a tune-up on a car – except the motors and generators are 300 feet away.
While working in an all-male boutique, he is happy to see more women entering the business and has even encouraged his daughters to think about it.
Ashlynn Cother, a 19-year-old who will be graduating from Iowa Lakes in May, says it’s a great field for women.
“You have to climb, your arms and legs are well trained. But it’s not something that requires brute force,” she said.
What type of training is required to become a wind or solar technician?
A two-year community college degree is typical. It should include training in meteorology, electrical theory, mechanical systems, applied physics, blade work, data and communications. No math is required beyond intermediate algebra, but students take courses in writing and public speaking.
“When you do a blade repair, you need to write down and document with photos every step you take,” Thompson said. “Public speaking is due to the fact that our students tend to move quickly into leadership positions.”
These technical colleges provide students with “an excellent launch pad for a successful career in industry,” James said.
‘Zombie ant fungus’ in humans? :Climate change sparks mushroom fears – some serious and some silly
NEWS:Will offshore wind ever power the Great Lakes states? A Lake Erie project may soon find out.
The two-year associate of applied science isn’t getting the support he deserves, Cother said.
“There were a few teachers in high school who thought it might be a waste of my potential, they thought I could do a four-year degree and then a master’s, but I’m happy and loving it,” he said. she declared. said.
For people fresh out of the military or who already have work experience, shorter certificate programs are available. “It’s good for veterans and people who worked in the oil industry or something like that for a few years,” Thompson said.
There is a wide range of military experience transferable to the wind industry, particularly avionics, aviation and engine technicians, said a spokesman for international wind company Ørsted.
Many programs that offer wind technology degrees also offer solar programs because much of the education in electronics and engineering is the same.
“We have solar classes built into the curriculum,” Gengler said.
Are the jobs easy to find?
There are many jobs for those who wish to travel or move to a wind farm site. When Cother graduates in May, she will move from Iowa to Watertown, South Dakota. “School ends May 12 and I start June 12,” she said.
Finding a job exactly where you want to be takes longer, Watkins said. He lives in Salina, Kansas, and ended up getting a job at a wind farm in Tampa, Kansas, about a 45-minute drive from his home.
“Wind farms are usually in rural areas, they are far from cities,” he said.
How safe is the work?
Every job carries some kind of risk and wind technicians are no exception, although there have been very few technicians injured or killed on the job in the past 15 years. According to experts, compliance with security measures significantly reduces the risk. In 2021, 58 workers died in the oil and gas industries, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Working in harsh conditions 300 feet in the air is an integral part of the job, so safety training is paramount. All programs spend hours training students in the use of safety harnesses and safety awareness until it becomes second nature.
“Before you climb the towers, you go to climbing school where they put you in a harness and then put you through the wringer,” Watkins said. Now that he’s working in the field, he doesn’t really think about it anymore. “After doing it a few times, you really focus on your work, you don’t think too much about the size.”
Although he does peak on the pod from time to time. “I take a moment to look at how beautiful it is.”
How much does it pay?
Anyone graduating from a two-year program can easily start at $24 to $25 per hour and up.
“Most of my students start at over $40,000 if they get a job at a wind farm. If they’re traveling, they usually start at $60,000,” Thompson said. “But what’s great is how quickly the increases happen. By their third or fourth year, their income is up to $60,000 and for those who travel, it’s $80,000.”
Is fear of heights a problem?
Modern wind turbines are typically at least 300 feet tall and future installations should be even higherit is therefore undeniable that this is a job that requires escalation.
That said, being uncomfortable with heights isn’t a problem — you just can’t be paralyzed by fear, Thompson said.
Safety training and intensive training in proper protocols and the use of equipment go a long way in allaying fears, he said. For those for whom heights turn out to be a deciding factor, “perhaps you should look at the solar side of things,” he said.
What’s the best part of the job?
“There’s so much variety,” said Faith Lutat, 22. She is three years into her career after graduating from Iowa Lakes. “I don’t feel like I’m slowing down or getting bored, there’s always something new to do.”
On top of that, as an outdoors person, the view “literally can’t get old,” she said. “If the fog is falling or there’s snow or whatever, it’s still amazing.”