Oklahoma Needs Qualified Wind Power Technicians
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Oklahoma is one state benefitting from the energy boom, and in more ways than one. A wind power rush is underway there with companies competing to secure the windiest spots while breathing life into small towns.
But as Logan Layden of member station KGOU reports, the industry's expansion may be moving too quickly.
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LOGAN LAYDEN, BYLINE: Brilliant white towers with giant, slowly rotating blades dominate the otherwise stark winter landscape of northwest Oklahoma. But despite their imposing, stalwart appearance, they need help to keep pumping electricity into the nation's grid.
Each turbine requires regular maintenance during its 20-year lifespan. And that's the problem. There aren't enough qualified technicians to do the work.
Kylah McNabb is the Wind Energy Development Specialist at the state Department of Commerce.
KYLAH MCNABB: The need is definitely national, and as well as in Oklahoma. Industry averages, you usually see one turbine technician for every 10 turbines on the ground.
LAYDEN: That's not enough for many in the industry, who say we need double the technicians.
MCNABB: So when you're looking at growth across the nation taking place, that's a lot of turbines going into the ground, therefore, that equates to a lot of technicians that are needed, because just like cars or anything that are mechanical, like airplanes, they need service, they need updates.
LAYDEN: It seems odd, with America's unemployment problem, to have a shortage of workers for a job that can pay in excess of $20 per hour. But being a turbine technician isn't easy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
LAYDEN: Kevin Bradshaw descends 13 stories down a ladder inside a mock wind turbine at the Canadian Valley Technology Center in El Reno.
KEVIN BRADSHAW: (Unintelligible)
LAYDEN: Working turbines in the field will be twice the height, about as tall as a football field is long.
BRADSHAW: I mean, the climb tires you out, but it's the best workout you can get.
LAYDEN: Bradshaw is one of about a dozen students going through the technology center's four-week turbine maintenance training program. Having a GED or high school diploma is the only prerequisite; aside from being in decent enough physical shape to safely fit in the claustrophobic electrical boxes perched atop the towers. And it's grueling climbs to dizzying for prospective technicians like Bradshaw.
BRADSHAW: I'm not going to lie, it's gets scary. It would be a big problem if you didn't have fear.
LAYDEN: But conquering that fear means job security for years, a powerful incentive, but not the only one.
U.S. Department of Labor's Green Grants program is paying the tuition for many of Canadian Valley's students. Oscar Briones is soldering at an electrical workstation.
OSCAR BRIONES: You're working with 120 and 420-voltage, which will kill you. Plain and simple: You don't know what you're doing up there, you will die.
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LAYDEN: But he says it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up, after he lost his other job as a motorcycle mechanic.
BRIONES: So I was in the market to find something else to do, and this seemed pretty exciting. Being 300 feet in the air, that's pretty exciting in its self. So yeah, I'm a thrill seeker.
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LAYDEN: And Briones, like many of his fellow students, practically has his pick of employers.
BRIONES: I'm kind of playing, you know, playing the field, seeing where I'm going to go, but just this morning I had an interview with a big company and was offered a job.
LAYDEN: This is just one of several state-run programs addressing the national need for technicians to maintain the 40,000 wind turbines in the U.S., and the thousands more yet to be built.
For NPR News, I'm Logan Layden.
MONTAGNE: And that story comes to us from StateImpact, a project by NPR member stations examining how state policy affects American lives.
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MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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