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Qualified wind-power workers scarce, finds federal report

Nearly 70% of 247 wind power employers in the U.S. have had difficulty in hiring for most positions, and 25% said they had to look outside the country for qualified employees, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Employment in the U.S. wind industry increased 32% from 2015 to 2016 and 5.6% the next year, compared to nonfarm employment growth of 1.8% and 1.6%, respectively, according to the report. Wind energy technician was the second-fastest growing occupation in the U.S. in that period. To keep pace with industry expansion, the authors concluded, the U.S. may require up to 1,000 new training programs.

"The difficulty of employers identifying well qualified candidates while wind and renewable energy graduates report difficulty finding jobs in the wind industry suggests a potential gap in the wind industry workforce," the report said. "Narrowing this workforce gap — decreasing hiring difficulty while increasing graduates' ability to find new jobs in the wind industry could reduce recruiting costs, better satisfy employer needs and grow the domestic workforce. Narrowing the gap would simultaneously help educational institutions more efficiently fill classrooms and communicate wind industry career options to potential students."

Already, new training programs are appearing across the country. Vineyard Wind LLC, which is developing the Vineyard Offshore Wind Project, on July 29 announced that 12 students from Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and South Coast communities in Massachusetts recently graduated from a STEM Advanced Studies and Leadership Program as a part of the company's inaugural class of Vineyard Wind Scholarship recipients. The scholarships provided full tuition and related expenses for the seventh-grade students to attend a three-week resident summer camp at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Unions are also helping to fill the gap. On Aug. 5, the Utility Workers Union of America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the union's Power for American Training Trust Fund announced an apprenticeship program, certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, that will provide education in "specialized skills to remain at the forefront of the offshore and onshore wind, solar generation and battery storage fields." The two-and-a-half-year program will provide paid, on-the-job training experience that will qualify graduates for a job with Michigan-based Consumers Energy Co.

The U.S. Department of Energy is also pouring resources into training tools, such as a Wind for Schools project that encourages college students to enroll at Wind Application Centers located at land-grant universities, where they receive hands-on training by developing and installing small wind turbines at elementary and secondary schools. A DOE Collegiate Wind Competition encourages undergraduate students and professors to design, build and test small wind turbines.

While valuable, such programs remain siloed, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory report. "These efforts are not integrated into nationwide training or educational programs, and there is much more room to provide meaningful connections between training, education, and industry to achieve a highly qualified domestic wind energy workforce."