Caution, Acrophobes: Fastest-Growing U.S. Job Not For You
May 12, 2016
By Jennifer Oldham
(Bloomberg) -- Sean Fritzler snapped his 13-pound climbing harness onto a metal cable and clambered 260 rungs up four ladders to the top of a wind turbine as tall as the observation deck on the Statue of Liberty’s crown.
Fritzler reveled in the lofty solitude afforded by the nation’s fastest-growing occupation as he popped open the nacelle hatch. The 15-by-30-foot space was crammed with equipment that makes electricity from wind captured by blades that sweep a vertical area as long as a soccer field. He vaulted up top, clicked an industrial-sized carabiner to a pipe, and stood to take in the 360-degree view. Below, black cows looked like ants.
"My office is 300 feet in the air," said Fritzler, 25, one of five GE Renewable Energy technicians who service 56 turbines at a wind farm on the desolate eastern Colorado prairie. "Everything about this job is interesting."
Demand and intense competition for mechanical daredevils like Fritzler are accelerating as states eschew fossil fuels for renewable energy. Wind-turbine service technicians, who must work at extreme heights during temperamental weather, occupy a job category projected to expand more than any other through 2024, outpacing health care and technology, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Congress ensured wind would remain the nation’s quickest-growing source of electricity when it approved a five-year extension of tax credits for the industry in December. States are also fueling the gains; Hawaii plans to generate all its energy from renewable sources by 2045, and California and New York plan on 50 percent by 2030. More than half the wind industry’s capacity is associated with state mandates, most of which have been enacted since 2000, according to an April study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
"These policies send signals to the wind industry that it’s worth making significant investments," said Warren Leon, executive director of Montpelier, Vermont-based Clean Energy States Alliance, which represents agencies in 16 states from Alaska to New Hampshire. "States see renewables as an area for increased jobs."
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in April called harnessing energy from renewable sources one of his highest priorities. Wind provided 19 percent of the power Xcel Energy Inc. sent to Colorado customers in 2015. Xcel, and providers in Texas and Iowa, drew as much as two thirds of their power at any one time from the country’s 49,000-turbine fleet last year.
More is coming. Construction is under way on 81 projects in 25 states. A record 74,512 megawatts of wind energy, enough to power 20 million average homes, is online as of the end of the first quarter.
Companies are competing fiercely to hire technicians to keep the power coming. Most are snapped up before they even collect a diploma. Five firms recently approached Andrew Swapp, the director of wind energy technology training at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, New Mexico, to court the 27 students in the class of 2016.
"This is an unprecedented number of people asking for our graduates," Swapp said.
Some Mesalands students are former oil and gas industry workers who were among 87,000 handed pink slips in 2015 amid stagnant crude prices. The utilities sector, including the wind and solar industries, hired the second-highest share of out of work roughnecks after the oil and mining industry in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Turbine service technicians took home a $53,030 annual mean wage, more than their counterparts on oil derricks, who earned $52,680, according to a May 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Federal economists project the demand for wind turbine service technicians to grow 108 percent by 2024 -- more than double the rate of the second-fastest category, occupational therapy assistants. Accounting for the gain in part is the fact that the number of available jobs is smaller than other fields, jumping to 9,200 from 4,400 in 2014.
Tampa, Florida-based Granite Services International Inc., an affiliate of General Electric Co., hired many Mesalands students. Granite contracts with Mesalands to train new employees in safety, evacuation and rescue techniques on the college’s 262-foot-high turbine.
GE is constantly recruiting to avoid a technician shortage, said Andy Holt, general manager for North America wind for Schenectady, New York-based GE Renewable Energy. Holt’s division employs or contracts with firms for 1,200 technicians in the U.S. GE hires these workers out to wind-farm operators who purchase its turbines.
"They are our front line -- they are industrial athletes," Holt said. "It’s hard to find them."
Fritzler, the nimble technician, works for GE at Colorado Highlands Wind, a farm about 48 miles (77 kilometers) from the Nebraska border. The company hired him before he graduated from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling in 2011. He was 20.
Five years later, Fritzler scales as many as four turbines a day. Greasing the equipment’s many cables and machines and mopping up the sticky black lubricant goo are some of his most frequent tasks.
Jobs like Fritzler’s, with a median annual wage of $48,800, as well as the money wind-farm operators pay local landowners, are a boon to struggling rural communities like nearby Fleming, said GE’s Holt.
"You go up on a wind farm in Texas, or Oklahoma, or Kansas, and the only thing that was there before was a little bit of corn and cattle," Holt said. "Now there is still corn and cattle, but also lots of high-tech jobs."
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