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Inside Energy: Wind power means job opportunities

Wind power is a growing part of the energy mix in the United States. New wind projects are being planned from Wyoming to Iowa to Oregon. Along with that growth, there are new job opportunities for people to install and repair the 30-story-tall wind turbines. But as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports for Inside Energy, a unique skill set is required -- the fearlessness of a pro rock climber along with the know-how of a skilled mechanic.

Sean Hughes’ class of wind turbine technicians had a really exciting day recently.

(:03s) “We were eating at a barbecue place here in El Reno.”

That’s El Reno, Oklahoma. And no, the barbecue wasn’t the exciting part. That came when the students’ phones started ringing, one after another.

(:07s) “And they were just, I mean I’m telling you, they were just so happy. It was ridiculous. They were yelling and screaming around.”

They were yelling and screaming because they’d all just been offered jobs -- by the same Texas wind company. Hughes says it was surprising to get the offers all at once, but not surprising that they got offers.

(:11s) “Our success rate has been 85, 90 percent.”

Hughes says if he’d had more students, they probably would have been hired too. That company alone was looking for 40 new wind technicians. Brian Boatright has the same enviable problem.

(:05s) “They’re so in demand right now and we just don’t have the bodies to fill those.”

{keep ambi under boatright} Boatright heads up another wind energy training program -- at Laramie County Community College, in Cheyenne. In Wyoming, the program is a two-year associates degree, but the goal is the same as Oklahoma’s 4-week program:

(:03s) “Make sure that the turbine itself does not fall down.”

To that end, the training lab at the community college is outfitted with all kinds of equipment.

(:15s) “We literally have a turbine, a nacelle...

That’s the part that sits behind the blades and holds the generator and the gear box.

… that literally fell of the truck and so it was donated to us. {fade under trax} We’re going to kind of scoot around here, watch your head.”

Out at a real wind farm, we’d have a 15-minute climb up the turbine ahead of us. But in the lab, Boatright leads me up a short ladder, to a metal platform that’s at eye-level with the nacelle’s gearbox.

(:15s) “This is what it would be like inside of a turbine. Now, the fans are going to be on. Then, we have a hydraulic pump and then, we have our gear oil pump.”

{ambi under} Over the din, he explains that his students are highly sought-after because they get to do hands-on training with all of the complex equipment that runs a turbine.

(:07s) “They have to be able to take all of this knowledge and take it 300 feet in the air when they be (sic) future techs.”

{fade ambi under} But on this particular day, Boatright’s students are working on a potentially more daunting task: getting ready for a class visit from 50 fifth graders.

(:02s) “We’re just getting our gear on.”

That’s Craig Overlease. He’s holding a full-body climbing harness in one hand and a coil of rope in the other. He explains the elementary schoolers will get the chance to be lifted and lowered on a metal wall -- training for going up and down an actual wind turbine...

(:04s) “They’re going to do some rescues today. And some climb-falls.”

Skills that are key when you work outside, in windy conditions, at great heights. It was the height that attracted Overlease to the job. He was once on top of a wind turbine, as a welder’s helper, and the experience came back to him when he was looking for a new job.

(:08s) “You know, the opportunities you have to get up on top of the nacelle during lunch, you know, you get the opportunity to do something that not most people ever get to experience.”

And the perks extend beyond the lunchtime vistas. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a turbine tech is $22 an hour. It can be significantly more for those with advanced skills. Peter Kelley is a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association. He says not only that, the jobs are often in places without a lot of other opportunities.

(:07s) “Virtually every state has either jobs building these turbines or jobs constructing and maintaining them.”

Wind turbine technicians are what labor experts call the “middle skilled” - blue collar jobs that require some level of specialized training. The BLS, says in the next decade demand for wind technicians will grow at double the rate of other jobs.

{fade up audio of children} But it turns out the 5th graders from Alta Vista Elementary weren't particularly interested in the job market. They were mostly interested in the climbing part.

(:21s) “Joyce: How high do you have to go up to get into a real wind turbine?
Kid 1: Umm… I’d probably estimate…
Kid 2: 260 feet!
Joyce: 260 feet?!
Kid 1: Yeah, close to that range.
Joyce: Have you ever been up that high?
Kid 2: Umm. No, I have not.
Kid 1: The Ferris wheel at the Carnival is not even half that size, but it’s pretty high still.
Kid 2: It’s a quarter of that size!
Joyce: Would you want to do this?
Kid 1: Yeah!
Kid 2: Yeah!”

The enthusiasm is good, because the industry will need it: there are already 50,000 turbines operating in the United States and tens of thousands more are expected be built in the next decade.

For IE, I’m SJ, in Wyoming.

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