Wind turbine technicians are hard to find. With rising pay and a thriving Iowa future, they shouldn’t be.

Source: By Danny Lawhon, Des Moines Register • Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2018

DANA, Ia. — The higher Tyler Humpfer climbed Friday, the further he felt like he could see into his future.

The 24-year-old from Ankeny was scaling a 264-foot tall, 1.6-megawatt wind turbine on a community-owned wind farm here, about an hour northwest of the Des Moines metro. He’s a second-year student in Des Moines Area Community College’s wind turbine technician program.

He was weeks away from graduation and days, hopefully, from a job offer.

As students looked around them, they counted several dozen more turbines in the distance. At 10 turbines per technician employed in the field, that translates to several jobs just in this tiny slice of Greene County.

So why in the world were only 18 students along for the ascent?

The money is good — last year’s median wage for a wind turbine technician was at $53,880, or almost $26 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For reference, that’s more than $16,000 above last year’s national median wage of $37,690 for all occupations ($18.12 per hour).

Don’t worry about job security — wind turbine service technicians are projected to possess the second-fastest growing occupation in the country, per the BLS. Currently, about 5,800 technicians are employed nationwide. That number is expected to almost double by 2026.

Education is affordable, too — a two-year associate of applied science degree is estimated to cost about $11,500 at DMACC, according to the program’s website.

So it’s as if a wind-powered neon sign flashing “GOOD JOBS HERE” should be plastered over the program’s Ankeny door. Even at Iowa Lakes Community College in the state’s wind-rich northern reaches, their two-year program comprises about 60 students.

What gives?

“When wind companies come in and present, they’re puzzled. We’ll have five, 10, 20-year vets who say they don’t know why the class isn’t full,” said DMACC professor James Fitzpatrick. “Some jobs you hear about could have 200 or 300 applicants. (These will get) five or 10. And that’s throughout the United States.

“… They’re as confused as we are. We need technicians in this trade. It pays well. This is a career, not a job. We have 26-28-year-old supervisors.”

Many of the students in the program have figured as much out. A few, like Humpfer, have already had interviews, even though their levels of mechanical experience vary as much as Iowa’s weather forecasts.

“You have a fairly high percentage of students who come into our program who have zero background (in electrical or mechanical repair),” Fitzpatrick said. “Some have not turned a wrench or troubleshot a battery to a car. But we give them the basics of everything.”

To illustrate the varying backgrounds, meet a few students who hope to soon be climbing up the ranks.

Andrea Edwards was a couple of classes away from her adult high school diploma at DMACC a couple years back, and science seemed like the best closing ticket.

The 25-year-old from Waterloo liked working with her hands. Electronics was always a hobby

Enter the wind program, and some uncertainty. Edwards wasn’t equipped with knowledge of hydraulics, program logic controllers, multimeters, schematics or welding.

All those skills have come in time, and with surprising ease, the second-year student said. She’s enjoyed her five semesters of classes more and more.

“This has made me a lot more excited about the job,” Edwards said. “Getting my degree is pretty great, but I was already excited because I just love that I am going to be a part of renewable energies.”

Edwards hopes to begin her career in Iowa until she gets a couple of years’ experience. That’s not a bad plan, as Iowa still ranks third in the nation for total installed with capacity, behind Oklahoma and Texas.

But she figures she can go wherever the wind takes her after a while.

“I plan on sticking with this until I can’t climb anymore,” she said.

Chris Jackson: The traveling musician

Globetrotting is at the top of Chris Jackson’s mind when looking at his prospects as a turbine technician.

The first-year student could jet-set across the country and even into Europe and enjoy his working life. Plus, putting his name and his guitar in as many places as possible will help him toward his ultimate dream as an aspiring musician.

“I could travel to Memphis, North Carolina, to Florida and California. Play some honky-tonk bars for an hour or two, get my name out there,” said the 21-year-old from Bondurant. “But I would still be doing work and exploring at the same time. It’s the best of both my worlds.”

Once in the program, Jackson was impressed with how the classes have built on one another — starting with circuits, moving to resistors and capacitors and leading up to work on the turbines themselves.

He’s already got half an eye on the job market through multiple online sites that are offering $28-32 an hour for an extreme travel load.

Fitzpatrick said that a starting wage of $20-22 an hour (between $40,000 to 45,000 annually) is a reasonable floor, with a lot of room to move up.

“Some start out closer to $25 and are leaving a job making $10 or $11,” he said.

Tyler Humpfer: No longer part-time

Indeed, a full-time career sounds a lot better to Humpfer than a part-time warehouse gig.

The wind energy field kept popping up in his search for a career after a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps repairing CH-53 helicopters.

“You get a broad set of skills to work with,” Humpfer said of his two years of coursework. “Electrical motors and programmable controls — the basics of all that are translatable in other fields.”

Fitzpatrick agrees, citing his entry into wind via traditional industrial maintenance. He left his job at a major renewable energy firm to teach eight years ago, with DMACC’s program then in its second year of operation.

He watched other technicians pay their knowledge forward, as they helped students such as Humpfer understand how an industrial-sized turbine works.

“It’s worked real well with people we have been able to keep in touch with. They share their experiences, and we consider them in terms of what we teach,” said program chair Dean Hoffman. “It’s good affirmation as we see them moving along and moving ahead in the industry.”

Good affirmation for the students, too.

“It makes the experience worth it —sitting in the classroom, seeing all the parts up in the turbine, up in the cell,” Humpfer said.

Jason Hills: The ex-military dad

The sheer height of a wind turbine isn’t so much the problem for Jason Hills as is getting up to the top.

The disabled Army veteran is in his first year in the program as part of vocational rehab through the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He’d held jobs at John Deere, as part of an electrical substation construction team and even as a full-time Uber driver to support his 19-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

Hills, 41, of Des Moines, said former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver was one of his passengers a couple weeks ago, and they talked about the wind, of course.

He said he labored through climbing DMACC’s 100-foot test turbine on the Ankeny campus, and he realized he might need to get into slightly better shape to tackle the giant turbines on a regular basis. But he’s not daunted by the work.

“They teach you a lot more than I ever expected, and in a timely manner, but it’s not all thrown at you,” Hills said. “It’s in such an order that one class or topic leads to the next. It’s a progression, and I like that they thought about that.

” … There are people already in the industry taking classes alongside us, and we’re learning just as fast as they are.”

That learning could soon be put into action in Iowa. MidAmerican’s Beaver Creek (Boone and Greene counties) and Prairie (Mahaska County) farms added 169 turbines to the company’s total of more than 2,000 in operation last year. Alliant’s Wind II project should provide hundreds of new Iowa turbines in the next several years.

“We partner with contractors on our wind farms. Contractors hire the wind turbine technicians,” MidAmerican spokesman Geoff Greenwood said. “There is a general wind industry expectation that there will be approximately 10 wind turbines per technician plus management and support team members.”

The company’s Wind XI project calls for 1,000 turbines upon completion. That’s 100 technician jobs alone, and from just one company.

Friday’s journey up and down a commercial-size tower was the first for most of these aspiring technicians. The way wind energy is blowing, it’s unlikely to be the last.

“There’s a shortage in Iowa, a shortage all over,” Fitzpatrick said. “I have employers calling me from wind, and they want three, five, seven people at times. These guys have a job if they want one. Right away, out of the chute.

“You can graduate, and be on a plane in a couple of days.”