Wind technician jobs growing, in Iowa and nationally

Reaching to the sky

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CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s easy to spot the 240-foot-tall wind turbine on Kirkwood Community College’s Cedar Rapids campus.

The 2.5 megawatt turbine helps power campus. But it’s the full-sized turbine hub and the nacelle — the body of a turbine that houses much of the internal components — tucked away in Tim Arnold’s classroom that fuel the bulk of coursework for Kirkwood’s prospective wind turbine service technicians.

Arnold, Kirkwood’s instructor of Energy Production and Distribution Technologies, said Iowa’s growing wind industry is driving up the need for skilled technicians to maintain expanding wind farms nationwide.

“We are getting a lot more interest. A part of that, I’d like to think, is the strength of our program, but part of it is more national visibility of the career field and the job prospects,” Arnold said. “There are more jobs coming available because installations are going through the roof.”

A 2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics fastest-growing occupations report projects wind turbine service technicians to see the highest rate of growth for any career in the nation. The report forecasts a 108 percent growth in the occupation over a 10-year span — from 4,400 jobs in 2014 to 9,200 jobs in 2024.

Median pay for a wind turbine service technician in 2015 was $51,000 a year, according to the report.

A GROWING INDUSTRY

Much of the strength of Iowa’s wind industry can be tied to the Federal Production Tax Credit, an inflation-adjusted per-kilowatt-hour tax credit. The federal incentive program provides tax credits for energy generated by qualified renewable sources, such as wind.

Wind jobs dropped significantly in 2013, for example, due to layoffs following delays in the credit’s 2013 renewal. A December 2014 Iowa Advanced Energy Employment Survey showed Iowa’s wind-power workforce in 2014 represented a decline of as much as 50 percent of the jobs that were added in 2011 and 2012.

That decline “resulted in a 90 percent drop in wind industry revenue in 2013,” according to the survey.

The industry started to bounce back after the credit was renewed and, in late 2015, lawmakers signed a multiyear extension of the credit through 2019.

“The employment prospects are tied so closely to the overall health in the industry, and right now the industry itself is, I would say, more stable,” Arnold said. “It’s certainly less volatile than it’s ever been — and along with that long-term stability, employers are now thinking long-term about hiring employees.”

The American Wind Energy Association reports Iowa, which last year became first in the state to generate more than one-third of its electricity from wind energy, is second in the nation with more than 6,300 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity.

The industry supports up to 7,000 jobs, including service technicians, manufacturers and other related occupations, according to AWEA.

MORE TURBINES, MORE JOBS

Last year’s announcements by the state’s biggest utility companies to invest a collective $4.6 billion into the wind industry — $3.6 billion by MidAmerican Energy and $1 billion by Alliant Energy — will add more than one thousand turbines in Iowa.

MidAmerican Energy plans to add hundreds of turbines in the coming years and reach wind power generation levels that equal 85 percent of energy used by Iowa customers.

The project is expected to add hundreds of permanent jobs, Adam Jablonski, MidAmerican product manager of renewable energy development, said in an email.

“As MidAmerican Energy installs more wind turbines across Iowa, more wind turbine technicians are needed to service and maintain them. One additional wind turbine technician is needed for approximately every 15 turbines added to our operating fleet,” Jablonski said.

MidAmerican contracts with technicians for the utility company’s 2,020 Iowa wind turbines and currently has about 175 contractors in its operating fleet.

Matt Cole, plant manager and director of wind generation at Alliant’s Lansing generation station, said the company employs technicians to handle the day-to-day activities such as regular maintenance and repairs. The utility also contracts with other companies to conduct two annual maintenance checks and take on major component projects, such as turbine blade or gearbox replacement.

Alliant’s $1 billion investment will add close to 200 to 250 new turbines in the state, Cole said.

“As we install more wind turbines, the day-to-day operations and maintenance, contracted service workers and contracted major component replacement workers ... all our needs will increase,” Cole said.

A SKILLED WORKFORCE

Back at Kirkwood on a recent February morning, Arnold had introduced several electrical faults to the computer system in the nacelle, and now he watched as his six second-year students crawl inside the classroom’s massive turbine hub to perform battery maintenance.

There are 16 first-year students in Arnold’s most recent class.

Kirkwood’s wind program started in fall 2011. Just months later, the school’s 2.5 megawatt wind turbine, which also serves as a teaching tool, went online.

In those roughly five years, Arnold said he’s seen a shift in the program. Wind companies that used to seek out individuals in other similar fields — such as mechanics or aviation experts — who could adapt to turbines, now seek trained turbine service technicians.

“Now at this point, it’s less focused on pulling people from other industries than it is about growing technicians in programs like this,” Arnold noted. “If there’s one thing that we can do in this program that I think is most beneficial to students, it’s remaining flexible and being responsive to changes in the industry, and that’s a constant challenge for us.”

Tony Vaughn, site manager for Alliant’s Whispering Willow wind farm and its 181 turbines in Franklin County, said turbine service technicians need to be troubleshooters, with the ability to tackle a litany of problems as they arise — from hydraulics, electrical systems, mechanical components and computers and fiber optics.

“Our technicians have to be kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” he said.

In addition to maintenance and repair skills, turbine service students also begin climbing the school’s fully functional turbine in their second year of courses to learn safety and rescue skills.

When the two-year program concludes, Arnold said Kirkwood’s wind turbine service technicians are ready to fill the growing need in Iowa and the rest of the country.

“Students ask, ‘If I devote two years to a program like this, will I have job prospects?’ And we are in a place where I can let them know this is something they can hang their hat on, that the prospects are really good,” Arnold said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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