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Oklahoma's capacity to lead wind production leads to worker-preparation scramble


Carol Cole-Frowe July 2nd, 2009

Thousands of available good-paying jobs are out there blowin' in the wind " literally. Several Oklahoma colleges and technology centers are straining to train qualified wind technicians, wit...

Wind-Turbine-blades-pano-sc

Thousands of available good-paying jobs are out there blowin' in the wind " literally.

Several Oklahoma colleges and technology centers are straining to train qualified wind technicians, with the industry expanding exponentially as the quest for renewable energy gains even more traction with the encouragement of the Obama administration.

TURBINE TECHNICIAN PROGRAM
TOTAL INVOLVEMENT
SITE SELECTION

At "Wind Commerce 2009: The Future is Now," state educators and industry experts told overflowing breakout sessions full of attendees that potential technicians can't be trained fast enough. The two-day conference, sponsored by the state commerce department, was held last week in Norman.

Those technicians, experts said, are poached by headhunters working to move qualified employees from one wind company to another, driving the wind employment market even higher.

Oklahoma, they said, is poised to become a world leader in wind production and manufacturing of wind turbine parts, if it can fill in some of the gaps like transmission and workforce training.

With one of the highest wind production capacities in the U.S., the state has been tagged the "Saudi Arabia of wind," said Natalie Shirley, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Tourism.

"In all the years I've been in education, I've never seen such enthusiasm," said Jerry Nielsen, division head of science and engineering technology at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. "People want to get into something with a future."

TURBINE TECHNICIAN PROGRAM
Entry-level wind technician jobs earn $12 to $13 an hour, with more experienced field technicians earning $30 to $35 an hour for a typical 50- to 60-hour workweek, said Rick Avey, president of FriEnergy, an Oklahoma company servicing and troubleshooting wind turbines internationally. He worked with Francis Tuttle Technology Center and others to establish a wind turbine technician program, and even considered opening up his own school out of frustration from a lack of finding qualified workers.

"We are getting ready to hit with a tsunami of work," Avey said, whose FriEnergy has been involved with almost every wind farm nationally. "That's not going to stop for the next 15 or 20 years."

There is one catch, however: Those wanting a job in wind technology must not be afraid of heights, or they had better conquer it promptly. One of the first classes taught for wind technician training is climbing those massive, about-280-foot towers " a washout course for those who can't handle the height.

But once they get up there, there's plenty of work to be done to maintain the turbines, which feature about 8,000 parts apiece.

John Claybon, Oklahoma City Community College corporate training consultant, said the school had to first learn about the wind industry. But, OCCC did that in a hurry after being contacted by Avey to help train technicians. The relatively new program at OCCC caters to people who have jobs, with classes set in the evenings.

"Our classes are full," he said. "I've got a backlog."

TOTAL INVOLVEMENT
Claybon said training wind professionals would require all the educational institutions in Oklahoma to become involved.

"One institution is not going to be able to supply the demand," he said.

Nielsen said there are efforts under way to standardize training, similar to requirements in other skilled professions. Wind technician training, however, is still being developed.

"We want to get the program accredited or endorsed," he said. "What this tells employers is, you know what you are getting. For students, it gives them options of going anywhere in the country."

Kimberlee Smithton, director of business and industry services for the High Plains Technology Center in Woodward, said the school is still taking its cues from the industry on what courses to teach.

But, even teaching the courses is a step in the right direction.

"We all recognize that we have to jump, and we have to jump now," Avey said.

SITE SELECTION
Ed McCallum of McCallum Sweeney Consulting handles site selection for several major wind companies. He said workforce skills, training and development are always among the top three site selection factors. McCallum lauded Oklahoma's Quality Jobs Act, which has been expanded to the wind industry, but he said other states are coming up fast, including Texas. States throughout the Midwest are rushing to capitalize on their wind production potential.

"You've got competition," McCallum said.

And despite Oklahoma's potential as a wind production state, hurdles remain.

Howard "Bud" Ground, manager of environmental affairs for Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said there are issues that still have to be addressed for Oklahoma to get to the next level of wind production.

Those include a production tax credit extension; economic incentives for Oklahoma utilities to purchase more wind power; improving regulatory lag times; transmission line siting; overcoming NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," thinking; wildlife issues; and access to capital on a low-cost, low-risk basis. "Carol Cole-Frowe

 
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