With wind turbine towers popping up on the U.S. landscape at a rate of almost 10 per day, the need for people to maintain and repair them is reaching the critical point.
Community colleges in North Dakota and other states are jumping at the chance to help fill that need and develop a niche for themselves at the same time through wind tech programs.
"The demand (for wind technicians) is such that some (colleges) have been trying to keep companies away from the program because they want everybody to graduate first," said Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. "In some cases, students are being picked up after only a couple of months."
Last year, 3,200 new wind turbines were installed across the nation as power companies responded to the push for more green energy. It brought the total number of towers with wind-catching blades to more than 25,000, the association said.
The structures vary in size and energy output, but Azua said a general rule is that a two-person operation and maintenance team are needed for every 10 turbines.
"You're looking at several hundred jobs in just one year," she said. "These people need to come with training."
Iowa Lakes Community College, a five-campus school based in Estherville, started a wind tech training program in 2004 after Al Zeitz was hired away from General Electric Co. He came in to provide expertise for a wind turbine to help the college reduce energy costs.
"The natural question was, 'Is there anybody doing any training?'" Zeitz said.
College's classes grow
The program he started by himself now has a five-member staff. With financial help from the industry, it has grown from two classrooms to six, several offices and a storage facility. The first year, there were 15 students. This fall, there might be as many as 90, taking classes in everything from electrical fundamentals and hydraulic systems to computer networking.
"It's a fairly rigorous program, and there are some students who don't make it through," Zeitz said.
Dwaine Higgins, who graduated from the Iowa Lakes program, said his future is bright.
"The job outlook in the wind industry is virtually unlimited," he said.
Higgins, who now works for a Boston-based energy company, added that working with wind turbines is not for everyone.
"You never know what you may have to deal with," he said. "When you are 300 feet in the air, it is not always easy to get a hand from another person."
Zeitz said it is not uncommon for students in his program to get three or four job offers apiece.
"Employers are coming to us saying, 'We want to hire 50 people this summer. We want to hire 100 people this summer," he said. "It's definitely a big challenge for the industry right now."
Growth in other states
Zeitz said he knows other wind tech programs started by community colleges in Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas, and said several other schools have expressed an interest in such a program.
The American Association of Community Colleges does not know how many schools around the country have started wind tech programs, but such programs are a natural fit for the two-year schools, spokeswoman Norma Kent said.
"Typically we're a bit more flexible in bringing on a new program," she said. "There's perhaps less bureaucracy. Community colleges are known for responding to current needs in their community, or current opportunities in their communities. If there's a need out there, they're probably going to be the first to recognize it."
North Dakota has about 600 wind tower turbines operating or planned, according to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates larger wind farms.
"We're one of the leading states for wind development. We ought to have a wind tower technician training program here," said state Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle.
Florida-based FPL Energy has more than 200 wind turbines in North Dakota and a total of more than 7,600 in 16 states. Field staff number about 500, and the majority of them are technicians, said spokesman Steve Stengel.
"These are good-paying jobs with a lot of upside potential," he said, estimating the starting annual salary for a typical wind technician job at between $35,000 and $40,000.
FPL Energy is working with several community colleges to develop or enhance training programs.
"It is in our best interest to make sure that when those students leave that program, they are as well-trained as they can possibly be," Stengel said.
Developing relationships with colleges also gives the company an advantage in the rapidly developing industry.
"The more we can expose ourselves to potential employees," Stengel said, "the more likely they would choose us when looking for a career opportunity."