Workers Retrain for Wind-Energy Jobs

Published on
by
The Los Angeles Times

Workers Retrain for Wind-Energy Jobs

A growth market beckons in Calif.

by
Marla Dickerson

Wind could supply 20 percent of America's electricity by 2030, up from less than 1 percent now, the Energy Department says. (Ricardo DeAratanha/ Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. - One man in the classroom earned more than
$100,000 framing tract homes during the building heyday. Another
installed pools and piloted a backhoe. Behind him sat a young father
who made a good living swinging a hammer in southern Utah.

But
that was before construction jobs vanished like a fast-moving dust
storm in this blustery high desert. Hard times have brought them to a
classroom in Kern County, about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles, to
learn a different trade. Tonight's lesson: how to avoid death and
dismemberment.

This is Wind Technology Boot Camp at Cerro Coso
Community College, where eight weeks of study and $1,000 in tuition
might lead to a job repairing mammoth wind turbines sprouting up across
the nation.

The work requires smarts and stamina. It is
potentially dangerous. Candidates need good knees, a cool head - and a
stomach for heights.

"I've seen guys just freeze halfway up the
tower," said instructor Merritt Mays, a baby-faced former Marine, who
at 29 already is a grizzled veteran in this young industry.

For
those who can hack it, starting pay ranges from $15 to $20 an hour.
Crack technicians can make six figures a year. Wind farms are hiring
and probably will be for years to come. That's luring hard hats such as
49-year-old Chuck Patterson back to school, despite the inherent risks
of working 300 feet in the air.

"This is where the money's going
to be," said the contractor from Ridgecrest, southwest of Death Valley
National Park, who likes the idea of a steady paycheck after years of
construction boom and bust.

As in previous recessions, this
economic downturn is boosting enrollment at community colleges and
vocational schools. Classrooms are swelling with workers from hard-hit
industries looking to change careers.

Educators say the
difference this time is the surging interest in so-called green-collar
jobs. President Obama wants to create 5 million such jobs over the next
decade. What isn't clear is how the nation is going to prepare this
workforce.

Technical education for renewable-energy workers is
scarce, particularly for the fast-growing wind industry. Only a handful
of wind programs operate in community colleges. Cerro Coso filled the
15 slots in its boot camp within hours. The next course is already full.

The
United States last year surpassed Germany as the world's number one
wind-powered nation, with more than 25,000 megawatts in place. Wind
could supply 20 percent of America's electricity needs by 2030, up from
less than 1 percent now, according to a recent Energy Department report.

California
is the number three wind state, behind Texas and Iowa. A slew of
developments are in the pipeline, including in Kern County, where
hundreds of turbines already dot the wind-swept ridges of the Tehachapi
mountain range.

"This is going to be ground zero for alternative
energy" in California, said Jim Fay, vice president of academic affairs
at Cerro Coso Community College, which has five campuses in Kern
County. "We have to prepare our students."

The economic crisis
has dampened growth in the renewable-energy sector. But the US wind
industry is clamoring for skilled technicians to maintain the 30,000
wind turbines already in the ground.

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