Wind turbine technology program blows in opportunity for students and small towns

Cody Smith contributed to this blog.

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The U.S. is home to one of the largest and fastest-growing wind markets in the world, and many states are taking advantage of that by developing wind farms to generate clean, renewable energy.

Programs all over the country exist to train technicians to work on those wind farms. One such program exists in Mitchell, South Dakota, at Mitchell Technical Institute. There, technicians are trained to install, inspect, maintain, operate, and repair wind turbines. They are able to diagnose and fix any problem that could cause the turbine to shut down unexpectedly.

Brian Roberts, wind turbine technology department head and instructor, leads the two-year program.

“What these students are learning is how to work on a wind turbine—how to do all of the maintenance on a wind turbine,” said Brian. “I give them a broad perspective of what they’re going to see on a wind turbine.”

In 2019, the program had eight graduates, with eight students enrolled for next year, and can accommodate up to 24 students.

While attending the program, students get hands-on experience learning about electricity and aligning motors with gears and the generator.

“We also have a 300-foot 1.5 megawatt wind turbine that Mitchell Technical Institute owns,” said Brian. “We go up to that turbine every week so the students can see everything.”

Construction on an outdoor wind lab will begin this summer. Towers will be built up to 30 feet in height, and, once finished, the lab will consist of 12 nacelles—streamlined housings or tanks on the outside of the wind tower.

Safety is a huge concern during training, and on the job. Brian says they take it very seriously.

“If you’re driving down the road with your seatbelt on, you’re safe,” said Brian. “But, you don’t know about the guys coming toward you. We worry about ourselves, and we worry about the people we’re working with.”

Modern, up-to-date technology and training practices have made the program safe and successful, and have also given the program a 100 percent job placement status.

“Students are getting jobs at sites here in South Dakota, or they’re going to different sites across the U.S., or they’re going to be traveling technicians, where they get hired by a company who sends them all over the U.S.,” said Brian. “They also travel into Canada, overseas, whatever is needed.”

The starting salary for a wind technician is around $55,000 a year, and while that has been a great incentive for students to enroll in the program, Brian says there are other factors, too.

“In the last five years I’ve been here, the main reason somebody’s in this program is because it’s exciting,” he said. “They don’t know a lot about it, they want to learn more about it. And, then when I get them to the top of a 300-foot tower, they’re just amazed. They just want to keep doing it.”

Not only do students excel in and after their time in the program, rural America is benefiting as well. Most of the taxes from wind farms go back into the rural communities that host them. New schools, among other things, are built with that money. And, small towns see growth due to the technicians coming in to install the towers, and those moving in afterward to maintain them who stay and raise families there.

“It’s going to be growing for years to come,” said Brian. “They keep building new sites all over the nation. And, there’s a lot of room for growth. It’s going to grow for at least the next 15 to 20 years.”

Job security, a good wage, rural revitalization, a chance to work close to home, and more draw students into the program. Brian says the love of the job is what makes them stay.

“It’s just an amazing career,” he said. “I’ve been in the industry going on 16 years, and I still drive by a wind turbine on the interstate, and it’s just amazing to me.”