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International recognition, stellar placement rate make KVCC training program a wind industry leader

As rain-flecked gusts off the Straits of Mackinac tousle trees near peak fall color, a group of students from Kalamazoo Valley Community College is grilling hot dogs and razzing each other. There’s plenty of laughter during the lunch break, but it’s serious business that has kept them at the tip of the Lower Peninsula for nearly a week. The technicians-in-training are performing routine maintenance to ensure a pair of wind turbines near Mackinaw City’s wastewater treatment plant continue turning strong straits winds into clean, renewable electricity for Michigan homes and businesses.

“This is the real deal,” says Tom Sutton, director of wind energy and technical services for KVCC. Thanks to an agreement with Crystal Flash Renewable Energy, which owns the turbines, KVCC trainees learn by doing twice-yearly maintenance at Mackinaw City. They measure turbine vibration. They use a laser to make sure the components are properly aligned. And the basics: “Lots of grease,” Sutton says. “Lots of cleaning.”

A hands-on approach

Since it launched in 2009, the Wind Turbine Technician Academy at KVCC has emerged as a world-class producer of highly skilled workers for a fast-growing industry hungry for talent. The fast-paced, hands-on program lasts less than six months and all but guarantees its graduates a good job with solid pay. (Federal data peg the median annual pay for wind technicians at $46,000.)

It’s the only program in the country to hold both the American Wind Energy Association Seal of Approval and certification from the BZEE, a German body that issues training standards. Dual certification qualifies the technicians to work on wind turbines anywhere in the world.

“It gets us really prepared for what the industry is going to be like,” says Steve Davis, a 28-year-old student from Grand Rapids.

It’s not the first time Davis has worked on these turbines. He was in Mackinaw City with Sutton just two weeks earlier because he won a class lottery. When Sutton gets the call that a turbine needs troubleshooting or repair, he picks a number in his head. The student who guesses the closest number wins. They grab bags of equipment that always sit ready in the classroom, and they hit the road.

Davis has a passion for clean power. He’s hoping to land at a wind farm in Hawaii—why not?—but says he’d be happy anywhere, “as long as I’m in the industry.” A former landscaper and tree trimmer, he’s used to heights and heavy equipment, and he’s always been pretty handy.

Where Davis does not thrive, he admits, is in a traditional classroom. Give him your most stirring lecture or show him your slickest PowerPoint presentation—it just won’t soak in. “I’ve never been to college before,” he says. “This hands-on work is how I learn best.”

Hands-on work is what KVCC’s training program is all about. The academy—which welcomed its eleventh class this January—is entirely competency based. The wind industry keeps KVCC updated on the skills technicians need, and the training staff makes sure the students have them.

“Strong fundamentals,” Sutton says. “That’s the key to this. If you teach them the fundamentals and how to think systematically, you can keep up with changing technology. We’re known for making troubleshooters.”

In fact, the academy’s final exam requires students to troubleshoot a wind turbine electric panel they’ve never seen before—in 12 minutes or less.

Safety first

Wind technicians also need to be able to get the job done in some unusual settings. “The towers move,” Sutton says, “and they’re a little bit of a confined space.” To make sure phobias won’t keep students from doing their jobs well, the program begins with an interview at the top of KVCC’s 100-foot training tower. Before diving into turbine maintenance or repair, Sutton first spends 15 full days training the students in how to work safely hundreds of feet above the ground and get themselves or their coworkers out of dangerous situations.

That safety training comes in handy in a career where no two days are quite the same, says Cody Hopkins, a Schoolcraft, MI, native who worked a variety of jobs—including breeding mice and rats for medical research—before enrolling in the academy.

“KVCC does a great job of teaching you that safety is number one,” he says. “It’s a challenge every day. Whether the turbine gives you a challenge or the weather, in this job you have to be able to adapt well.”

Shortly after graduating in 2011, Hopkins went to work in Wyoming for EDF Renewable Services. About six months later the company offered him a position as advanced technician and safety lead at Michigan’s largest wind farm in Gratiot County, where he has worked since.

Hopkins says the hands-on training he received at KVCC sets him apart from others on the job site. Within a month of arriving in Wyoming, he was assigned to lead technicians who had already been on the job a year or more.

“I’ve seen guys who come out of one- or two-year programs and, just doing electrical, they’re not real sure of themselves,” he says. “We had to do so many things to be able to graduate. We actually got field time, where a lot of these schools are trying to teach people to fix turbines and they’re sitting in a shop.”

It’s a rule of thumb in the wind industry that you need one technician for every ten turbines. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says in 2012 there were 3,200 wind turbine technicians working in the country. The bureau predicts 24 percent job growth in the industry in the next decade—much higher than the overall growth rate of 11 percent.

“We’ve got graduates who are park managers in the Thumb, and lead techs everywhere,” Sutton says. “Once a project is up and running, those jobs are stable.”

A true success story

More than 130 KVCC alumni so far have found work in the industry. The program’s placement rate is 96 percent. It is not uncommon for wind companies to hire an entire class of KVCC technicians while they’re still in training.

“Every one of them gets a good job,” says Rich Vander Veen, a member of the team that put the two wind turbines at Mackinaw City and the developer behind the Gratiot County wind farm where Hopkins works. “This has transformed the lives of a lot of young men.” (And it has been mostly men. Just three women have graduated from KVCC’s academy and gone on to work in the traditionally male-dominated industry. Both Sutton and Vander Veen say they’re eager to see more women in the field.)

Vander Veen says well-trained wind mechanics actually make wind farms more valuable. By keeping turbines tuned-up, technicians keep them spinning more efficiently and more often, reaping more clean energy and greater rewards for local communities.

“This to me has been a true success story,” Vander Veen says. “In addition to all the triple-bottom-line values that wind provides, here’s another aspect of career development and getting on the on ramp to a career for a bright young person.”

Jason Guinn, a soft-spoken former forester and science teacher from Midlothian, TX, caught the wind-power bug while teaching a middle-school lesson on renewables. He started researching career opportunities in the wind industry and said KVCC’s intense, 24-week academy seemed like the best place to gain valuable real-world experience.

Guinn, 37, said he likes good, hard work, which turbine maintenance provides in plenty. But the job also has headier perks.

“It’s exciting going up there and getting the views not many people get to see, you know?” he says. “Seeing the world from 300 feet up.”
-Andy McGlashen
RELATED TOPICS: clean energy, wind power
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