Just three years after earning a wind energy associate degree from Laramie County Community College (LCCC), Travis Ford has been promoted by NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, from technician to associate wind site supervisor. Among his first supervisory tasks is the hiring of nine technicians to maintain the expansion of the company's Limon Wind Energy Center located about 90 minutes from Denver, Colorado.
Ford said strong mentors and his education helped him advance quickly. "Definitely my background, the schooling at LCCC helped me prepare for being a good wind technician and being able to step into leadership roles as needed," he said. Ford graduated from LCCC's two-year degree wind energy degree program in the spring of 2011. He was promoted in April 2014.
Demand remains strong for graduates of LCCC's wind energy program, which has received two Advanced Technological Education grants from the National Science Foundation since 2008. Six of the eight wind energy students who will graduate from LCCC in May already have jobs lined up, according to Bryan Boatright, the wind energy instructor at the public two-year college in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He expects the other two students to have jobs in some aspect of power generation before they graduate.
The starting salaries of new LCCC wind technology graduates range from $45,000 to $60,000 annually, Boatright said. A technician who travels for work assignments receives a per diem allowance for expenses along with a pay rate of about $17 per hour.
Wind Energy Program Gives Students Career Options
LCCC's program prepares students to maintain wind energy turbines. The climbing skills and knowledge of alternating and direct current that the students gain in the program are also applicable to other types of power generation including those that use photovoltaics, parabolic troughs, and hydrogen fuel cells.
"They're not pigeon-holed in one particular area," Boatright said, explaining that he sees part of his job at LCCC as "opening students' hearts and minds" to the array of career opportunities available to them. His goal for the program is to bring "more safe, more well-trained technicians into the field."
For a glimpse of LCCC's well-equipped classrooms and a view from the top of a wind tower view the video Boatright made recently at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilVnuG2IVgo
LCCC Graduate Shares Perspective on Wind Tower Work
Ford said the technical skills he learned using real wind energy industrial equipment at LCCC have been extremely helpful since 2011 when he was part of the 30-person team that maintains 348 wind towers at NextEra's wind energy center in Peetz, Colorado.
"LCCC did a really good job of showing us what we would be doing on a day-to-day basis, how we could dive into a problem and look at it logically and solve for root cause—things that are highly desirable traits here in this industry," Ford said.
Wind technicians always work with a partner and can call supervisors for help, however, working atop a 260-foot tower is just one of the challenges of the job. "You are miles and miles away from your O & M [operations and maintenance] building and you have to be able to make good decisions on your own," Ford said.
"Safety is, of course, the number one thing here above anything else. It is our core value," he said.
LCCC's Focus on Safety Begins with Screening of Applicants
"Safety is everything," Boatright said in a separate interview. He pointed out that safety is emphasized throughout LCCC's curriculum that teaches both hands-on technical skills and academic knowledge.
Technicians' attention to safety is critical because the nation's power system is a matter of homeland security and energy companies put employees' safety, public safety, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment into the hands of technicians.
For these reasons, Boatright said he carefully scrutinizes applications to the two-year associate degree wind energy program. If applicants have misdemeanor or felony convictions—even expunged juvenile charges—he advises them to pursue other careers because they will not get job offers from energy companies.
"Bad habits up the tower can cost people's lives," he said, noting that employers and their insurers do not want to take chances on people who have had even minor brushes with law.
Boatright has reviewed 60 applications for the 12 places in the new student cohort that will start the program in Fall 2014. He has admitted eight students to date, and eliminated many prospects because of their criminal histories.
Employer Explains What He Looks for in Technicians
Ford said he has an abundance of applications for the nine openings he has for the technicians who will be responsible for maintaining the 118 new Limon III towers. The towers are under construction and are expected to begin generating power in October.
All of the candidates he hopes to hire are graduates of wind energy programs and have made it through the company's thorough background check.
Several are young people for whom this will be their first full-time job; they demonstrated excellent technical skills in two-year college programs. Other strong candidates have previous work experience in auto mechanics or industrial maintenance before enrolling in wind energy programs. Two of the finalists are military veterans.
He and others at NextEra find military experience a highly desirable attribute because veterans generally have technical and leadership experiences. "They are prepared to be leaders and do the job effectively and safely," he said.
While growing up on the Wyoming prairie Ford said he was attracted to a career in wind energy because the towers were the tallest structures he could see. The magnificent views that come with working on the turbines were initially a big part of what excited him about going to work each day.
While the views are still thrilling, Ford they are less important than the personal challenge of keeping the turbines working. "That success of fixing something and making it work is what was really appealing to me the last two and a half years," he said. It is this conviction that he hopes the technicians he hires bring with them.