"Tight supplies" has
become a catch phrase when pros in the booming North American wind
industry talk about wind turbines, but the phrase can also be applied
to the workers qualified to keep these million-dollar machines humming.
In the U.S. and Canada, new technical
education programs at the college level have started to address this
need. More programs are being conceptualized to fill what could be
hundreds of jobs across the continent.
With thousands of wind turbine generators
(WTGs) erected in recent years - and thousands more planned - having
enough qualified workers available to operate and maintain them is
becoming more of a challenge.
Currently, turbine manufacturers or wind
farm operators have to retrain existing workers from other sectors of
their companies to operate and maintain equipment. In some cases, they
increasingly have the option of hiring recent graduates of technical
college programs already well-versed in WTG operations and maintenance.
While the numbers of graduates can now be counted by the handful -
dozens, if not hundreds - will join the workforce in coming years.
Fledgling programs have cropped up across
the North American continent or are in the stages of development to
lure students within the next year or two. And as more of these
programs start to catch on, graduates could have ample opportunities
for employment, if recent experience is a guide.
A common thread in the creation of these
programs, according to the college professors and others charged with
developing curricula, has been the interest and eventual collaboration
of WTG manufacturers, such as GE and Vestas, and wind farm operators,
like FPL Energy.
"Graduates have a basic knowledge of
mechanics and electronics, allowing them to work in these general
fields, but our goal is mainly to prepare wind turbine operation and
maintenance workers," says Bernard Hamilton of the Centre de
Grande-Rivierie in the Gaspe region of Quebec.
Students have the option of obtaining a
one-year certificate or a three-year degree.
Nearly 1,000 MW of wind plants are being
built by GE now, which offered technical and financial assistance to
start the program. And in a region with a depressed economy and
provincial government mandates to provide opportunities for local
employment, jobs that will pay about C$20 an hour are a welcome sight.
The first class of eight students - with
nearly 1,400 hours of class time - graduated last year. The current
class of 13 will complete studies in December.
Iowa Lakes Community College in the rural,
northwestern part of the state, created an associates degree program
with 81 credit hours of study.
Program coordinator Al Zeitz, who formerly
worked for GE Energy, was able to fulfill a lifelong teaching ambition
when he was hired to implement the program, which was launched in fall
The two-year program will graduate its
first class of eight students in a few months, with two already
entertaining job offers and the others expecting to follow suit when
they complete a required internship. A one-year diploma option is also
A wind turbine was erected on campus about
a year ago, and the program's creation benefited from a $500,000
In some programs, student demand may be on
the verge of getting ahead of the available space or staff.
At Iowa Lakes, for example, enrollment is
capped at 30 students per class due to limited classroom space and the
fact that there are only two dedicated faculty members. The second
class - graduating in 2007 - attracted 28 students, and enrollment for
classes starting in the fall of 2006 was already at 23 students in late
February, Zeitz says.
"We have students from California, New York
and Florida," Zeitz says, noting that he has fielded calls from across
the U.S. as well, from colleges looking to start their own programs.
Programs are being built from scratch, with
little opportunity to piggyback onto existing courses, except, for
example, classes in math or computers.
Course curricula were developed with
extensive sessions at the nearby Storm Lake wind farm. The approach was
to find out what the engineers operating the plant needed new employees
to know and then develop courses based on that input.
Company input is also essential in a
weekend course offered later this month for wind energy technicians and
others who work in the industry, to be held March 24 and 25 in
While the university is better known for
its research center for wind technologies for blades and other
components, and for an alternative energy undergraduate program that
includes a wind unit, its expertise has been sought by other academics.
"We have discussed this type of program
with the community colleges, and we're hoping to continue that and help
develop a program over the coming year," says C.P. "Case" Van Dam, a
professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University
of California-Davis and director of the California Wind Energy