Students move into growing market

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, December 11, 2010

Steve Vietor had no idea the Wind Turbine Technician program he helped get off the ground at Riverland Community College would be this big. He knew, when he started talking to wind energy representatives in 2003, that wind energy would become a viable job market. Vietor, an electrical instructor at Riverland, now deals with a waiting list of students almost three years back trying to get into the relatively new Wind Turbine Technician program at Riverland.

“You realized right away that those wind turbines, as they came into the area, represented a new (opportunity),” Vietor said. “There were employment opportunities that abound.”

The Wind Turbine Technician program kicked off in 2009, thanks to years of planning, coordination between several Riverland departments, and state funding for the program secured by State Sen. Dan Sparks and State Rep. Jeanne Poppe. The program combines elements of Riverland’s Construction Electrician and Industrial Maintenance programs, among others, which are tailored specifically to wind turbine mechanisms.

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“The variety, the things we try to hit really get students a good start out in the field,” said Bob Bender, an instructor in the Wind Turbine Technician program.

Riverland is one of a handful of colleges which currently offer a program like this, to the students’ benefit. Thanks to state mandates, about 25 percent of Minnesota’s energy must come from renewable energy sources by 2025. Those mandates are behind the recent wind farm boom, especially since southern Minnesota has ideal conditions for wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Since so many wind farms have cropped up in recent years, there’s currently a large demand for wind turbine technicians.

“We’ve been contacted by seven different companies within the last month who want to come in to meet our graduating students,” Vietor said.

This is good news for the first graduates of Riverland’s program. There are currently 15 students on schedule to graduate the two-year program in the spring of 2011, and 26 first year students. There would be more students graduating if they hadn’t left the program, after EnergyWorks, a wind energy company, offered internships to 15 Riverland students last summer. Several companies offered jobs to the students after their internship was complete.

“I had a couple of students that called me … and they were wondering whether to take the job,” Vietor said. “My position as an instruction was our focus is about career employment. I told him, “I wouldn’t look back.”

Wind Turbine Technician students can’t wait to get out into the industry. Eric Benson, one of the second year students who will graduate soon, found himself without a lot of options when he was laid off in January of 2009. Benson, who has a wife and five kids, went to the unemployment center that same day, to try to bounce back from his job loss. Among the various options he saw, he thought about schooling and heard about Riverland’s new program.

“I was probably one of the first to sign up,” Benson said.

Benson hasn’t held a full-time job since then, as he’s worked part-time jobs that work around his schooling schedule. Once he’s out on the job market, he’s ready to take a job that will allow him time for his family.

There will be plenty of jobs available, especially during down times. Since wind turbine technicians are responsible for maintaining the turbine overall, they are often busy making sure everything is working properly. This means climbing up 300 feet in the air and being strapped to a harness so they can work on the turbine. For an average wind farm with about 66 wind turbines, there’s about six or seven technicians, with extra technicians being hired on when production is low to make sure the turbines will run at optimum capacity before big wind seasons.

The industry has already hit a few bubbles, however. Several wind companies produce so much wind energy that they must sell off the extra electricity they make at lower than market prices, since wind-made electricity can’t be stored. Vietor speculates the current market conditions are just a slight blip in growth.

According to Vietor, the wind energy industry expanded so rapidly at first that current market trends in the industry reflect a correction of sorts, a check to the rapid growth, which will even out as wind power partners with other forms of energy production.

“There’s going to be some sustaining growth that I think is going to be good for the industry and is going to be good for our students,” Vietor said.

There are two wind farms being built in the area, with two more farms scheduled to be built within the next couple of years. The Bent Tree wind farm near Albert Lea is scheduled to open in April, just before graduates can look for jobs.

“It’s good travel, good pay, good benefits,” said Shaun Eppler, a second-year Wind Turbine Technician student from Austin. “It’s innovative, and it’s growing fast … it’s a pretty good opportunity.”