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Wanted: Wind Turbine Mechanic — Must Be Daredevil, Skilled With Hands


With wind power a growing part of the energy mix in the U.S., there are new jobs installing and repairing wind turbines. It's work that requires a unique skill set. Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports that you need the fearlessness of a rock climber and the know-how of a skilled mechanic.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: As instructor, Brian Boatright leads me on a tour of the wind energy lab at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, he explains that a wind technician's job can be boiled down to one simple but very important task.

BRIAN BOATRIGHT: Make sure that the turbine itself does not fall down.

JOYCE: To that end, the training lab at the community college is outfitted with all kinds of equipment.

BOATRIGHT: We literally have a turbine, a nacelle that literally fell off the truck and so it was donated to us.

JOYCE: The nacelle is the part that sits behind the blades and holds the generator and the gear box.

BOATRIGHT: We're going to kind of scoot around here. Watch your head.

JOYCE: Out at a real wind farm, we'd have a 15-minute-climb up a 300-foot ladder inside the turbine ahead of us. But in the lab, the latter is considerably shorter - just seven feet and the we're on a metal platform that's at eye level with the nacelle's gear box.

BOATRIGHT: This is what it would be like inside of a turbine. Now the fans are going to be on. Then we have a hydraulic pump and then we have our gear-oil-pump.

JOYCE: Over the den, Boatright explains that having the equipment on hand allows students to get used to working in noisy confined spaces.

BOATRIGHT: They have to be able to take all of this knowledge and take it 300 feet into the air when they be future techs.

JOYCE: If the students make it through the two-year program, they're practically guaranteed a job. Boatright says he's constantly getting calls from companies with job openings.

BOATRIGHT: They're so in demand right now and we just don't have the bodies to fill those.

JOYCE: Being in demand was important to Craig Overlease when he signed up for the wind energy training program. He used to be a floor hand on a drilling rig, but was laid off during the recession. During one of the odd jobs he took afterwards, he got to climb a turbine, the experience stuck with him.

CRAIG OVERLEASE: You know, the opportunities you to get up on the nacelle and look around during lunch and stuff, like, you get to do something that not most people ever get to experience.

JOYCE: And the perks extend beyond the lunchtime vistas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a turbine tech is $22 an hour. It can be significantly more for those with advanced skills like rope-rescue and electrical wiring.

OVERLEASE: We all like to be able to do the extra things in life. Do the extra things that we can for our kids. So that was a big factor I looked within, you know, what I wanted to do for a career.

JOYCE: Wind Turbine technicians are what labor experts call the middle skilled, blue-collar jobs that require some level of specialized training. Those are increasingly in demand and wind technicians are no exception. The federal government forecasts the demand for them will grow at double the rate of other jobs in the next decade. That comes as no surprise to Sean Hughes, a wind energy instructor at Canadian Valley Technology Center in Oklahoma. Recently his class was out eating lunch.

SEAN HUGHES: We were eating at a barbecue place here in El Reno.

JOYCE: And then the students' phones started ringing one by one. Each call was a job offer from the same Texas wind company.

HUGHES: And I'm telling you, they were just so happy. It was ridiculous. They were yelling, screaming around.

JOYCE: Hughes says it was surprising to get the offers all at once, but not surprising that they got offers.

HUGHES: Our success rate has been 85, 90 percent.

JOYCE: A rate that probably won't decline anytime soon, given that there are already 50,000 turbines operating in the United States and tens-of-thousands more expected to be built in the next decade. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce in Wyoming.

SIEGEL: That story came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Joyce