Washington state

Stimulus money funds 'renewable' training in Vancouver

VANCOUVER – Vancouver’s Northwest Renewable Energy Institute has taken off, propelled by federal stimulus money.

About a month after its first class started, the school has hired eight new instructors and enrolled more than 70 students in its six-month training program for wind turbine technicians.

The majority of the students have their $11,000 tuition completely paid for by job-training grants, said Arch Miller, founder of the institute, the newest division of his International Air and Hospitality Academy.

In many cases, the wind energy technology program — among the first of its kind in the country — has become a retraining center for recession refugees in the Pacific Northwest. Workers laid off from paper mills, the construction trades or other shrinking manufacturing industries come seeking careers in the growing wind industry and the opportunity to make $20 to $25 an hour as an entry-level technician on wind farms across eastern Oregon and Washington.

Ross Wood, 39, signed up for the wind energy technology program after he was laid off in March by Freightliner, where he worked as a service engineer. The Camas resident says he was attracted to the growing energy field by the chance to “branch the skills I have into a fun new career.”

If demand continues from workers such as Wood, the Energy Institute plans to hire four more instructors by the end of the year. Wind energy jobs are certainly in high demand as the industry booms, with the number of positions in the Pacific Northwest expected to double over the next 15 years, according to Clean Edge, a market research firm in Portland.

“We have a lot of interest in the wind turbine industry from employers who have visited with us and are anxious to hire our students and put them to work,” Miller said.

But first the students have to learn the basics of wind turbine maintenance, including how to safely climb into the 300-foot towers and fix a slew of mechanical, electrical and hydraulic problems. They start with a physical fitness test and remedial math, then progress into more advanced classes.

As the Academy celebrated its 30th anniversary in business on a recent Thursday, students in the new program were learning technical rigging and safety. To work in the towers, they’ll need to haul tools and components to the top using only a mechanized hook and a chain. Training starts on the ground but they’ll work aloft in the field.

“It’s hard to find people willing to work 300 feet in the air,” said Tracy Roscoe, director of the wind energy technology program and a former Vestas employee. “You’re dealing with bolts that hold a million-dollar turbine together; it’s important to understand how it works.”

Student Aaron Meyers, 43, says he was accustomed to working from precarious perches as an apprentice electrician and can’t wait to climb into a turbine. Meyers enrolled at the Energy Institute after he was laid off from Boise Cascade this year with 300 other workers.

“If you want a job, you have to take a risk,” Roth said. “I’m not saying I won’t freak out the first time I climb a tower, though.”

In addition to nerves of steel, wind energy technicians must also be willing to move wherever the wind blows. The institute requires all of its students to be comfortable relocating for employment.