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Going With the Wind

July 30, 2008
Related Topics: Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Training Technology, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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On freeway jaunts around The Dalles, Susan Wolff couldn’t help noticing the steady stream of flatbed trucks hauling turbine blades, shafts and other oversized parts east to the wind farms cropping up outside the north central Oregon town.

Wolff remembers asking herself: "Who’s installing that equipment and taking care of it once it’s in?"

A little digging uncovered the answer. While there was no shortage of renewable energy companies eager to build wind farms in rural counties bordering the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon and Washington, there was a severe shortage of skilled technicians to do the work.

So two years ago, Wolff, chief academic officer at Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, set about creating a wind energy technician training program that was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi—and at the time, one of only three in the nation.

Today, 48 wind energy technicians have graduated from the Columbia Gorge Community College’s program into jobs with some of the country’s biggest wind energy operators and equipment manufacturers. A few even got jobs before graduating, lured by starting pay of $20 to $24 an hour or more, according to Wolff. In recent months, the college has received more than $2.4 million in cash donations and equipment from corporations and government agencies to expand faculty training, laboratories and classroom facilities in order to train more students faster. In mid-July, the college hosted a wind energy training powwow that attracted officials from 18 other colleges and universities, many eager to start their own programs, as well as representatives from energy producers, equipment manufacturers and the American Wind Energy Association, the industry’s biggest trade group.

It has all happened so fast, "sometimes we pinch ourselves to see of we’re out of our minds," Wolff says.

The college’s training program illustrates how, at a time when other U.S. manufacturers are laying off workers and shipping production overseas, positions in renewable energy, though still relatively low in number, are booming.

Competition for wind energy technicians is fierce. Companies "are eating each other’s workforce alive," says Wolff, who recounts how one of the college’s recent tech-training program graduates is already working for his third wind farm employer.

The demand means HR executives and hiring managers at wind energy companies have to be creative when it comes to finding and hanging on to workers. Companies use all of the usual incentives—competitive pay and benefits, cross-training and individual career development plans—and generously support local training programs. Every little bit helps, says Maureen Shaw, workforce program manager at Portland General Electric, a 118-year-old utility with a growing wind energy business.

"It’s how your company is branded—the messages you put out in your recruiting territory about the kind of company you are," she says. "More and more, candidates are looking for diversity, or if they can come into a company and cross-train. They’re thinking, ‘How good a job will they do at developing me?’ "

It’s good to be green
It’s a good time to be in the green energy business. Consumers fed up with high prices for gas and other traditional energy sources are embracing it. At the same time, development is being supported by federal tax incentives and state mandates to bolster use of alternative power.

Although wind energy still accounts for only 1 percent of the country’s energy consumption, industry advocates believe that with enough government and industry support that could grow as high as 20 percent by 2030, putting it on par with the nation’s use of nuclear power and natural gas, respectively.

Getting there will take a lot more than the 50,000 people the American Wind Energy Association estimates currently work in the wind energy business. Across the country, fledgling training programs such as the one at Columbia Gorge Community College are producing 200 wind energy technicians a year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. But to reach that 20 percent goal, the industry will need 1,000 to 2,000 new technicians annually, says Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C., trade group.

Community colleges are a good choice for training workers for a new industry because that’s what they’re chartered to do, say Columbia Gorge’s Wolff and other college administrators.

"It is part of our mission to be the country’s workforce development providers," Wolff says. "We offer short-term training. We offer certificate programs. We offer two-year degrees. We’re more flexible and able to develop and implement programs and get employees out on the market more quickly than a university."

At Columbia Gorge Community College, Wolff and her colleagues knew they needed to act fast to meet demand. By their estimation, companies such as Portland General Electric, Horizon Energy and Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. arm of the Spanish wind energy giant, that were building wind farms in the area would need as many as 400 technicians by 2011. In addition to erecting wind turbines, technicians also scale the towers to do service and repair work, and some go to work for wind turbine manufacturers. The job requires knowledge of mechanical, electrical and electronics systems.

To get started, college administrators and faculty worked with energy company officials to create a curriculum based on an existing program for training electronics engineering technicians. They used initial corporate donations to train faculty, and fast-tracked the new program through the state’s community college accreditation process by offering it first as a non-accredited pilot program. The program is now offered as a one-year certificate or two-year degree.

In addition to donations, energy companies supported the program with scholarships and internships and, ultimately, by hiring graduates. Portland General Electric and Vestas, the company that makes Portland General Electric’s turbines, have hired close to a dozen technicians from the Columbia Gorge Community College program, says Elaina Medina, a Portland General Electric spokeswoman. As of early 2008, Iberdrola had 28 employees working on three wind farms in three Oregon and Washington counties. By the end of 2008, technicians should account for 20 percent of Iberdrola’s entire U.S. workforce of 700, which is spread over multiple states, says Jan Johnson, a spokeswoman at Iberdrola’s U.S. headquarters in Portland.

With so many new jobs to fill, Iberdrola is also hiring and retraining aeronautics technicians out of the military and, in Oregon, former employees of the region’s now-shuttered aluminum smelters, Johnson says. About 75 percent of the employees at its Columbia Gorge wind farms are local residents, which—along with the payments wind farmers make to lease land for turbines—has had a positive effect on the local economy, she says.

Hanging on to technicians proves tough
Hanging on to wind farm technicians is tough. Technicians willing to travel to remote areas to set up new turbines can earn generous overtime and have their housing, meals and transportation costs covered, according to college and company sources. Wolff knows one early graduate of the college’s training program who expected to make $80,000 in six months this year. Companies "are aware that until they have a larger workforce their costs will be high because they have to compete against each other," Wolff says.

To keep technicians happy, Portland General Electric offers internships and scholarships and focuses on things like benefits, cross-training and individual career development plans, says Shaw, the company’s workforce program manager. Competing for wind energy jobs shook up the 118-year-old utility, which had become complacent about its workforce, Shaw says. The company is paying closer attention to things like corporate branding and "what messages you put out there in your recruitment territory about the kind of company you are," she says.

But Portland General Electric also banks on its long-term relationships with community colleges and trade schools to help fill its jobs pipeline. Unlike some companies, the utility company isn’t cherry-picking community college students for jobs before they’ve graduated, Shaw says. "We won’t do that because we want a good relationship with the school and students because we know they have a choice, they’re going to look beyond the pay and benefits," she says.

At Columbia Gorge Community College, high demand and wages continue to drive students into the classroom. As of mid-July 2008, all 36 slots for the technician training program that starts in the fall were full, and there was a waiting list. Thanks to donations, including a $1.67 million grant from the U.S. Labor Department, the college will accept another batch of new students in spring, when it will also begin holding night and weekend classes for workers that wind farms hire and send back to school. The school recently received $395,000 from a state agency to build a laboratory to house a turbine hub that Vestas donated for students to practice on.

But even that’s not enough. Now the school is looking to team up with other Oregon and Washington community colleges and universities so more students can get through the required training curricula faster, Wolff says. Other state educational institutions are getting into the act too, including the Oregon Institute of Technology, a four-year university, which graduated the first class of its renewable energy systems program in June.

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