A new jobs training initiative in Wyoming seeks to bridge the gap between diminishing coal employment and booming wind technician jobs.
Goldwind Americas, the local branch of the major Chinese turbine manufacturer, is launching a free jobs training program for what the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks as the fastest-growing job in the U.S. Wind turbine service technician employment is slated to grow 108 percent in the 10 years starting from 2014, with median wages of $52,260 in 2016.
The Goldwind Works program will tackle the demand for skilled turbine repairs alongside another national challenge: the declining fortunes of America's coal miners. The company is building a massive wind farm in a part of Wyoming with a history so linked to the coal industry that it is called Carbon County.
The state produces far and away more coal than any other -- nearly four times as much as runner-up West Virginia. But coal employment there fell by several hundred positions last year, as the wind industry picked up steam.
“If we can tap into that market and also help out folks who might be experiencing some challenges in the workforce today, I think that it can be a win-win situation,” CEO David Halligan told The New York Times.
This marks a new approach to a dilemma facing the coal workforce, which has exerted considerable pull on the political discourse around energy.
President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners when he signed an executive order in March to undo his predecessor's regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, including coal plants.
“C’mon, fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says?” Trump said at the time. “You’re going back to work.”
The effort to revive coal jobs by undoing environmental regulations has left other challenges unanswered. Cheap natural gas from the fracking boom has made it harder for coal to compete in the power markets; Trump has advocated for even more domestic gas extraction.
An April study from Columbia University put numbers to the drop in U.S. coal consumption. The researchers found 49 percent of the drop resulted from cheap natural gas; lower-than-expected demand accounted for 26 percent of the drop; and cheap renewable energy was responsible for 18 percent of the decline.
"Implementing all the actions in President Trump’s executive order to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations could stem the recent decline in U.S. coal consumption, but only if natural-gas prices increase going forward," the Columbia researchers noted.
Automation has also whittled away at the tasks that coal companies need humans to accomplish, and that trend shows no sign of stopping.
Job training has been a go-to solution for politicians grappling with the declining economic fortunes of the industrial workforce. The trick is to match the training with actual jobs in the area where the workers live, and that can be challenging in mining country with limited diversity in career options.
As it happens, Wyoming enjoys both ample coal resources in the Powder River Basin and an abundant wind resource. It's not clear just how many of the lost coal jobs the wind industry can replace. But for those who gain the skills to climb hundreds of feet up the towers and repair the machines, solid employment is all but assured.
"Really, job placement takes care of itself," turbine technician instructor Daniel Lutat told radio show Here & Now in January. "The dilemma that graduates have from these programs is that they've got to choose which company to take a job with. They're being fought over because the demand for properly trained technicians is very high."
Goldwind is a Chinese company supporting coal miners in state that went two-thirds for Trump in 2016. The geopolitical implications might raise some eyebrows. If Wyoming workers prove enthusiastic about the opportunity, though, this could become a model for clean energy companies hoping to smooth the transition to more renewables in areas where fossil fuels dominate.
At the very least, it's a good public relations attempt.