Michelle Froese | Senior editor
Windpower Engineering & Development
If you keep up with news in the wind industry (and perhaps even if you don’t), there’s a good chance you’ve heard that many of its sectors are looking for talent and hiring. In fact, in 2016 the U.S Department of Labor announced growth in the field is expected to increase by 108% over the next 10 years. That rate is more than twice that of the second fastest growing job sector (occupational therapy assistants). Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor, wind-turbine technician is the fastest growing job in America.
“Right now, there are more than nine million people around the world that work in renewable-energy industries, and it has been estimated that nearly 50,000 additional trained staff will be needed by 2030 – and that’s in the wind-energy industry alone,” shares Henry Bailey, the Global VP & Head of Utilities Industry Business Unit at SAP, the world’s third largest independent software manufacturer.
That’s good news for clean-energy advocates and job seekers. However, it does come with a set of challenges, as Bailey points out. “The downside is that we’re facing a significant problem when it comes to addressing the talent shortage for technical specialists, such a wind techs, which are highly sought after in the industry.”
At the same time, technology is moving at a rapid pace (for example, the announcement of a 10-plus megawatt turbine could come at any minute), and the skills needed to safely and efficiently keep up as a wind tech are growing and evolving.
“Recently, SAP surveyed 3,100 people and found that 48% of industry leaders believe investing in digital skills and technology are the most important factors for driving revenue in the next two years,” says Bailey. “In the wind industry, professionals are looking at smart technology and digitalization to further the use and development of turbines, which requires a greater level of skill.” He adds that one way for talent to learn the specialized skills that aid in turbine development and O&M is by creating more mentorship and apprenticeship programs. “This opens more lines of communication, and provides greater opportunities for sharing ideas and tactics between new talent and experienced workers.”
Auston Van Slyke, a Program Director at Colorado’s Ecotech Institute, agrees. Once a traveling wind technician, he currently teaches a 60-hour wind-turbine safety course at Ecotech, the first and only college in the U.S. focused entirely on careers in the fields of renewable energy. “I used to hire new technicians, and it became quickly apparent how hard it was to find someone with the right combination of skills and values to succeed as a wind tech,” he says. “Today’s wind turbines are more advanced, Internet connected, and smarter than ever. So, it follows that today’s wind techs need to know more about computers, Internet protocols, fiber optics, and frequency converters. Good training is essential.”
So what training is needed to become a wind tech? That partially depends on experience. The exact training required of a wind technician will vary based on the job and a tech’s skill level, says Van Slyke. “If you have a lot of related experience or built up technical expertise, then a new wind tech may be OK with the basic 40-hour course — most companies put new hires through a standard 40-hour course, which includes climb, rescue, electrical safety, and company procedures,” he explains. “However, if you’re brand-new or lack the necessary skills and knowledge, a three-month tech course is currently the shortest available program in the U.S., followed by a nine-month program or a two-year associate degree.” He says the associate degree is one way a technician can work up to a management role.
“Additionally, it is essential to get an OSHA 10 or 30-hour certificate, as well as a Climb and Rescue certificate, in addition to the First Aid/CPR certificate.” OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is the main federal agency responsible for the enforcement of safety and health legislation in the U.S. “Another important feature to look for in a program is equipment and tool training,” says Van Slyke. For example, using tools and personal protection equipment correctly is essential to a safe and long career as a wind tech. “Even seemingly minor things such as training on multiple types of Fluke meters, like the megohmmeter and 87 model, is important.” Fluke has become the standard make for electrical test meters.
Of course, wind techs are typically expected to climb 60 to 80 meters or higher as part of a regular workday, so safety must come first. “Don’t take shortcuts — with training, tasks, or safety,” he advises. “And don’t get lazy with personal protection equipment. Wind technicians get a lot of hand injuries that could be prevented with gloves and the right tool for the job.” Some of this is common sense, but a lot comes back to training and education.
Although many new turbines are equipped with elevators or climb assists to ensure a safer ascent and descent, and many tools come with smart meters (such as digital torque guns that ensure a bolt is automatically tightened to exacting standards), wind technicians are also expected to keep up and work with such digital advances.
“It’s a fast-paced world,” says Bailey. “Advanced software and the industrial Internet of things, which connects devices, has made many tasks faster and easier, which is great. But these digital tools also require knowledge to be used safely and effectively.”
Van Slyke says life as a wind tech can be rewarding, and particularly with the right training. “Typically wind turbines don’t get looked at for months at a time. A wind tech’s attention to detail can save a machine from failing in the middle of the night, and that can impact a wind farm and the industry over time.” It could also save a wind owner thousands of dollars in downtime and lost production. “Wind is a relatively new industry and not everything has been thought of yet. Wind technicians have the opportunity to make changes to manufacturing or to user manuals, or suggest new tools and devices. My advice: Take your time to learn the proper skills, stay updated on new tools and techniques, and always do the best quality work.”
Wind tech training standards
Here are a few of the basics for working at height and on wind turbines.
- For working at heights, climbing, and rescuing, the standards are OSHA 1910 & 1926, ANSI Z359 & Z490 and NATE CTS Industry Standards.
- Electrical safety standards are NFPA 70E and NESC
- Keep First Aid, CPR, and AED the American Redcross updated
- As it pertains to technical skills, there are dozens of organizations that have created standards. The Global Wind Organization, a recognized leader, pertains only to Europe. Currently, the American Wind Energy Association is working with American National Standards Institute to create similar technical skill standards in the U.S.