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Wind Sweeps Down The Plains; Is It Bringing Jobs?
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Wind Sweeps Down The Plains; Is It Bringing Jobs?
Wind Sweeps Down The Plains; Is It Bringing Jobs?
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're about to tell a story with five characters, four are people, the fifth is the wind.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

INSKEEP: that's the wind thundering across the high plains of Oklahoma. In a stagnant economy it may be the wind of change. Americans are building more wind turbines, putting up those giant white propellers to capture the energy in the air. And the growing wind industry is the latest subject of our series Generation Next. Our guest correspondent Judy Woodruff met a young man who walked out of his old job and stepped into the wind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or you could say Quentin Johnson climbs into the wind, because that's what you do to fix a wind turbine, you climb 300 feet up.

Mr. QUENTIN JOHNSON (Wind Energy Technician Trainee): This is a harness, and this is a lanyard and these things - you hook these up -

WOODRUFF: Quentin was one of the first students to enroll in a new training program in Woodward, Oklahoma. He's learning to be a wind energy technician.

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm going to walk over here and I'm going to lanyard climb for you.

(Soundbite of clanking)

WOODRUFF: But when most people think about energy and Oklahoma, they think of the fuel that comes from the ground, oil, and natural gas help build this state. There are oil derricks all around Woodward. There's even one at Quentin's school. That's what he uses to practice climbing.

So Quentin, how hard was that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Not very, but day in and day out all day it's going to get pretty tiring.

WOODRUFF: Quentin probably doesn't need much practice. He's worked in oil fields since he got out of high school. He's climbed derricks as high as 200 feet.

You've got to be in good shape.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

WOODRUFF: And you're not afraid of heights?

Mr. JOHNSON: I used to be, but I've gotten over it.

WOODRUFF: Well, what was the first time and the second time like?

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, it was rough. I didn't want to let go of anything, just kind of hugged onto things. As a matter of fact, the first time I just made it about halfway up and I come back down. It was too much.

WOODRUFF: Why did you stick with it?

Mr. JOHNSON: The money. The money was great.

WOODRUFF: The oil money was great, $50,000 a year at its peak when the demand for oil was soaring. When oil prices plummeted late last year, so did Quentin's paycheck. He was 22-years-old and had wife and baby daughter.

Mr. JOHNSON: My last check for two weeks was $500 when it used to be $2000. That's when I got out.

WOODRUFF: So this just happened all of a sudden or how much warning did you have?

Mr. JOHNSON: No it - we were working really hard for five, six months. I mean, they'd even call us in on our days off some times. And then all of the sudden they just quit.

WOODRUFF: And when the oil and gas business quit, it quit for a lot of people.

Ms. KIMBERLEE SMITHTON (Manager, High Plains Technology Center): Are you in?

WOODRUFF: Kimberlee Smithton watches the ebb and flow of oil and jobs in Woodward. She's a manager at the High Plains Technology Center where Quentin trains. This year she got calls from laid-off oil workers all asking how do I get into wind?

Ms. SMITHTON: Now, let me just tell you, explain to you what we're looking at here. These are drilling rigs. They call this stacked. When there's nothing to drill, they stack them in the yard and there's one, two, three, four, five, six rigs stacked on this side. It's just a sad sight.

WOODRUFF: I don't see anybody around here.

Ms. SMITHTON: No. Six or eight months ago these rigs would have been out, they would have been working and there would have been people working.

WOODRUFF: The oil business is known for its cycles of boom and bust, and some workers will wait for things to bounce back. But Quentin Johnson needs an income now.

(Soundbite of child)

WOODRUFF: His daughter is 15 months old and there's another baby on the way.

Mr. JOHNSON: Hello, who is it?

Mrs. MALLORY JOHNSON: Now take the phone to Daddy.

WOODRUFF: When Quentin and his wife, Mallory, talk about the lives they led when he was making good money, they seem to be telling the stories of millions of Americans.

Mrs. JOHNSON: When he worked in the oil field, living on that kind of money for us being so young, we could go out and do pretty much anything we wanted.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh yeah. We could go watch movies, go to the mall, do whatever -and I haven't done that in six months.

Mrs. JOHNSON: And obviously it's more stress. You wonder How am I going to pay for this? I wish we wouldn't have gotten that, because now we have to pay for it. And how do we fix this? And how do we fix it now? And you just can't.

WOODRUFF: As Mallory and Quentin talk, his mother sits nearby. Kim Collins has long gray hair and eyes that seem to have seen everything. She is as tall as her son, 6 feet 2, and for a while, they shared the same livelihood. She drives a truck for the oil companies.

Ms. KIM COLLINS (Truck Driver for oil companies): It made me a good living. It's just not stable. You know, my dad was in the oil field in the early '80s when it went bust and so I've seen what it - you know, it's been here one day and it's gone the next. But the windmills are going to be there. Once they put them up, they're there.

WOODRUFF: Quentin listens to his mother and nods his head. He's seen 300 turbines go up around turbine. He's read the estimates that wind will bring thousands of jobs to Oklahoma. He's see the president on TV pushing renewable energy and backing it with stimulus money. He knows wind can't save the economy here. The industry is too small. But to Quentin, the wind feels like something he can touch.

Mr. JOHNSON: Everybody asking me how to get into it. Everybody's calling it the new oil field.

WOODRUFF: Had you paid much attention before to the whole idea of renewable energy, green energy?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, 'cause I worked in the oil and gas industry and that's where my life came from and I wanted to use oil and gas, 'cause that's what brought a paycheck home.

WOODRUFF: And if you stay in this industry, what do you see yourself doing in ten years, twenty years?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'd like to be a wind farm manager.

WOODRUFF: So maybe not climb the towers for 20 years.

Mr. JOHNSON: I just like to boss people around.

WOODRUFF: Quentin graduates from the wind training program in two weeks. His second child is due about the same time. He's looking for a job as a wind technician, but nothing yet.

Meanwhile, a temptation from his former life. Oil prices have been climbing up and not long ago Quentin's former boss asked if he wanted his old job in the oil fields back. We called Quentin to ask him about it.

Mr. JOHNSON: He asked me if I wanted the job, but I couldn't quit school with a month left, so I turned him down.

WOODRUFF: Was that a tough decision?

Mr. JOHNSON: Very, it was a job for $2000 every two weeks, that's pretty tough for anybody to turn down, but I know that it might not be a long term job. They could drill one hole with that rig and then stacked back out and then I'd be without a job again. So the more I thought about it, the better off I'd be if I just tough it out and go with the wind.

WOODRUFF: For NPR News, I'm Judy Woodruff.

INSKEEP: Generation Next continues this evening on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and also next Monday on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

It is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of music)

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