The U.S. wind power industry now provides 85,000 domestic jobs and even in the current recession has work available. Its far-sighted ambition to identify, define and validate training programs for those jobs took a step forward with the awarding of the first three industry approvals.
The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Wind Turbine Service Technician Program Seal of Approval is intended to ensure that people who are willing to invest their time, money and effort in obtaining training can find a quality educational program.
By winning Seals of Approval for their wind technician training programs, Iowa Lakes Community College, Columbia Gorge Community College and Texas State Technical College became like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the first three in what will become an Ivy League of high quality wind industry training programs.
“The Seal of Approval,” said Annie Sznajder, AWEA’s Educational Program Manager, “was created to make sure the technical school programs met what the industry needed. It is based on a skill set that was developed with industry input.” It is not, she added, an accreditation. “I’m not going to say it’s not going to turn into accreditation, but this is the first step.”
Development “has been going on for two-and-a-half years,” Sznajder said. The Seal standards, which cover the four major study areas of electrical components, mechanical components, safety and general skills, “have been approved not once but four times” by industry representatives.
The development process began at a summer wind institute hosted by Columbia Gorge Community College in Oregon in June 2008. Dr. Susan J. Wolff, the college’s Chief Academic Officer, was there. “We invited 17 colleges and universities from across the country, seven industry partners and AWEA representatives,” she remembered. “I’m very pleased that we started that conversation.”
Columbia Gorge’s Seal-winning program offers a nine-month certificate and a two-year Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree.
“Our program is in renewable energy technology,” Dr. Wolff said, and the program is designed “so our people can go to work for other people looking for technical skills, mechanical skills or electrical skills,” she explained. “We want our graduates to have multiple options for employment opportunities. We call it 'careers.'”
During the renewable energy boom years of 2007 and 2008, Dr. Wolff said, “every student who wanted a job in the wind industry was hired,” though during the recent recession, “That hasn’t been the case.”
A successful program, she said, is “industry-driven.” When approaching wind companies, Dr. Wolff said, “My question wasn’t ‘What can you give me?’ I went out and said, ‘What can I do for you?’”
Another Seal winner was Iowa Lakes Community College, one of the longest-running technician training programs in the country. Dan Latat, the Director for Wind Energy and Turbine Technology, said his school has a one-year program and a two-year program, and each requires a 384-hour internship. “That’s the equivalent of ten 40-hour weeks,” Latat said. “It’s the most challenging part of the program.”
Competition for internships is intense because students come from all over the region to find a place in Iowa’s booming wind business. But most internships are paid and most of the students who complete the Iowa Lakes program find work.
"When they get out there on the job, they’re truly rookies, so they tag along with an experienced technician, but they’re learning on the job,” Latat said. “If the students graduate our course and get a two-year degree, 80 percent to 90 percent are going to walk right out and get a job,” because “that’s really become the industry standard. And their average salary is going to be between $30,000 and $60,000 a year.”
Latat named four key things a student needs to succeed: drive and determination, a willingness to work, the humility to start at the bottom and a strong math and science background.
Texas State Technical College of Sweetwater, Texas, the town with the most wind turbines in the world, was the third Seal recipient. It is the only four-year school in the group, but Keith B. Plantier, the Program Chair, said technician training is a two-year curriculum. “Our placement is close to 75 percent,” he said, adding, “We have a 90 percent completion rate.”
Texas State’s success is surely due in part to the nation-leading Texas wind industry, but Plantier said the program got off to a good start in spring 2007 with “a full, utility-scale two-megawatt turbine” on site.
The school arranged outside financing for the turbine. “It’s a fully operational unit that generates electricity,” Plantier said. "That instantaneously gave us a marketable advantage."
What makes for an excellent training program, Plantier said, is “a combination of qualified faculty and resources. A wind technician program inherently requires a lot of startup costs. We’re fortunate to have that tower, and also to have a gear train on the ground so [students] can put wrenches on it and get hands-on training.”
Ten of the approximately 40 U.S. technician training programs have pending applications for Seals of Approval. AWEA’s Sznajder, who knows the applicants well, said she has seen “a lot of good schools out there.” Of the Seal of Approval program, she said, “It’s a big step,” adding, “It’s going to have a positive impact on the industry as a whole and make the work force stronger.”