Sixth of a skilled trades exploration series: wind turbine technician
The COVID-19 pandemic helped launch what has been called the “Great Resignation,” as a record 47.8 million people quit their jobs in 2021. Rates of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “quits” rose dramatically from March 2020 through November 2021, then remained steady near those record numbers in 2022.
The two main reasons for quitting were low pay and lack of advancement opportunities, according to a Pew Research study.
These workers could find what they are looking for in skilled trades, where openings remain plentiful. Durable goods manufacturing, for example, can only fill 65% of the available jobs if every experienced, unemployed person had a role.
What does it take to qualify for these plentiful roles in skilled trades, what is the work like and how much can you get paid? Our series, The Job You Want, helps answer these questions.
This field is not large, but the projected growth in the next decade is explosive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 68% percent increase in jobs between 2020 and 2030.
It’s in line with how much more electricity in the U.S. is generated by wind, and how much more could still be developed. In 2010, wind power was responsible for about 74 billion kilowatt hours; by 2021 that had increased fivefold to 379 billion kilowatt hours. That is more than three times the electricity attributed to solar energy.
Expressed another way, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) charted 139,000 megawatts of wind-powered electricity online in the second quarter of 2022 but the overall potential is more than 10 million megawatts.
Technical school training is the most common path to becoming a wind turbine technician. The U.S. Department of Energy compiles a list of almost 200 related programs at universities, technical or community colleges and private entities. Some institutions may include instruction within larger renewable energy programs. You’ll also likely do at least one year of on-the-job training.
The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook outlines a range of complementary skills that wind turbine techs may require, including first aid and CPR training, hydraulic maintenance and using programmable logical control systems.
Jenna Stokes is a wind turbine technician who traveled an uncommon path. She was a corporate accountant overwhelmed by the stress of the role and sought something different. Possessing some general mechanical aptitude was enough for her to get started.
“I literally saw the picture on the wind turbine and said, 'hey, that’s something I could do.'”
She attended a 12-month program at a technical school, completing it in half the time thanks to her previous education. She took a climbing test through another technical college but was able to get hired without additional technical training.
“When I went on my first job the first day, I went up in the basket, and the lead asked me, how did the first day go and I said, ‘Best job ever!’” she said. “And they looked at me like I was crazy.”
There are no federal or state licenses or certification required to become a wind turbine technician. Some educational programs say they provide certification, but those are specific to the school rather than broader to the field.
Individual wind turbine companies could have certifications specific to that company, but do not necessarily transfer. Stokes also has completed the “OSHA 10,” a basic 10-hour safety course, three times, and has done a confined space entry course.
The cost of two-year associate degrees will vary, but $5,000 to $10,000 of tuition is common. Certificate programs may be less. As with any post-secondary education, there could be financial aid programs to lessen your out-of-pocket costs. Beyond the education and the time you spend completing the program, there are no other costs associated with becoming a wind turbine technician.
It’s up in the air. That doesn’t mean it’s unclear, it’s just way up in the air. The average height of on-land wind turbines in the U.S. built in 2021 was 308 feet, and it has increased more than 60% in the last 20 years. Offshore turbines are even taller, and they are projected to go up to 500 feet by 2035. Working at heights, and in certain weather elements, is a given. But if you’re comfortable at those heights, you’ll enjoy some spectacular views.
Those views typically are in rural areas, where most wind farms are located. There are heavy concentrations of farms in the Midwest and the Central Plains, and there are almost none in the Sun Belt states. Stokes is used to being on the road, typically with six weeks on a job and then a week off.
Her typical workday lasts 8-12 hours, and the first two hours are dedicated to setup and safety preparations.
“I try not to be complacent, and always be vigilant watching everything around me. I have a lot of lines in the ground and in the air, and I don’t want those to get crossed. I look ahead to prevent things that could be a problem," she said.
“All it takes is one crossed line and you lose your power cable.”
The role of a wind turbine technician is straightforward. You’ll perform routine maintenance, troubleshoot problems and deal with urgent issues on the three primary parts of a turbine – the tower, the blades and what’s called the nacelle, composed of the generator, gearbox and brakes.
Beyond that, additional education can lead you into the engineering and system design of renewable energy systems including wind turbines. There are undergraduate and master’s degrees in this field, and even select doctoral programs in sustainability. The DOE maps out potential career paths in wind for both degreed and vocational fields. Wind turbine techs could advance into being a site manager or a trainer/instructor, while those with specialized technical skills could develop those to become a master welder or journeyman electrician.
“People get promoted from field techs to resource managers [behind a desk]; there are definitely other opportunities," Stokes said. “In wind in general, it seems to be growing. I know people from a lot of different companies, and they’re all pretty open to promoting within. It’s a good field for me for sure. I can go into almost any segment.”
The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.