BOURNE — On a warm February morning, an unlikely crew gathered in a small classroom in front of Captain Richard Flannery, their instructor in marine survival, whose wisps of gray hair looked perpetually tossed in a sea breeze.
The course, offered at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy since 2019, was the first in the United States to offer a Global Wind Organization safety certificate. That’s the international standard that any person who hopes to step foot on an offshore wind turbine — or any boat going near one — must complete.
As Vineyard Wind 1, the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm, has started taking root off the Massachusetts coast, the Bay State and many of its schools — including Bristol Community College and local high schools in New Bedford — are making large investments to train workers for the new industry. Since there are still projected shortages of domestic workers with the skills to work in offshore wind, this burgeoning pipeline may be one of the state’s most important assets for growing the offshore wind industry, along with Massachusetts’ high winds and extended continental shelf.
“Massachusetts is currently leading the way on offshore wind training,” declared a 2021 study sponsored by the Mass Clean Energy Center, which found that the state was hosting most of the offshore wind training programs in the Northeast.
At Mass Maritime, the trailblazing course has attracted participants from around the globe as the industry ramps up in Massachusetts. “Most people are flying in,” said Captain Flannery, and he noted that the week-long courses were already filled for the next three months.
A Canadian construction manager, Jason Sterling, was getting his certification en route to Denmark, where he would tour an offshore construction project. A young Massachusetts electrician, Justin Nessler, was using union funds to pursue the certification, hoping for a job in offshore wind power. They were among 12 students from multiple states, Europe, and even South America — a snapshot of a national and international workforce now taking shape.
To receive the certification, these students were completing the final day of a week-long course. The morning session summarized the fundamentals of radios, flotation devices, and other survival gear. The afternoon brought “crew transfer” practice on a boat off Mass Maritime’s docks, where Capt. Flannery and other instructors called out commands that sent the students scampering overboard onto a ladder that mimicked the base of a turbine. To finish off, everyone jumped in a pool, wearing bright orange jumpsuits, to practice survival swimming techniques.
Most parts of the country, even coastal states with their eyes toward offshore wind, lack the training programs that Massachusetts has. This at a time when states and the federal government have announced commitments to expanding green energy, including offshore wind.
Yet even Massachusetts, a leader among U.S. states, has workforce shortages in every phase of offshore wind, including the manufacturing, construction, and maintenance phases, which all lack sufficiently trained workers. “The state is most prepared to meet Science, Engineering, Management, and Maritime needs,” the same 2021 report said, “while least prepared to meet Construction & Assembly needs.”
Turbines the height of 70-story skyscrapers will soon tower over East Coast fishing grounds. But government regulators with ties to offshore wind developers are downplaying the danger to the marine ecosystem and fishermen’s livelihoods.
To fill the gaps, many short-term hires will have to come from overseas, especially Europe. But the state government and many of Massachusetts’ community colleges, high schools, and adult vocational programs are building more training programs for offshore wind jobs.
In New Bedford, the regional Voc-Tech high school launched a marine technology and aviation program in 2020, citing the need to prepare for offshore wind jobs and advertising an opportunity that “very few people in America” have.
This year, Gov. Maura Healey announced a new Clean Energy Innovation Pathway pilot program that will offer hands-on training in energy jobs to students at 6 to 10 public high schools in Massachusetts. Students will enroll in fall 2025.
“We need to support and grow the workforce that will electrify our homes, construct our resiliency projects, and build our wind and solar energy,” said Rebecca Tepper, the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary.
Community organizations want to beef up the pipeline, too. The South Coast Community Foundation announced this month that it’s offering $500,000 in grants, to support workforce development, apprenticeship programs, and community outreach. The grants are funded by the SouthCoast Wind Fund.
Bristol Community College to open training center
The largest local investment into the wind jobs pipeline is Bristol Community College’s National Offshore Wind Institute, which will bring the type of offshore safety training now at Mass Maritime to New Bedford. At a cost of over $10 million, the college is renovating a former seafood packaging warehouse on Herman Melville Boulevard into a ‘one-stop shop’ training center. It’s expected to open this year.
The site will include a deepwater pool, faux towers for students to climb, and even a steel skeleton that can be submerged for underwater helicopter escape training. Though Bristol’s Global Wind Organization safety certifications will compete with Mass Maritime, Capt. Flannery said he’s offered advice to Bristol on getting its program off the ground.
Jennifer Menard and Angela Johnston, two Bristol administrators overseeing the program, said the college’s investment has more than doubled on account of pandemic related cost-increases.
Despite earlier hopes, Bristol’s safety and technical training certificates did not start before Vineyard Wind began receiving turbine shipments in June. But administrators say they’ll have their facility humming by the time Vineyard Wind is hiring for future stages of its project, including for operations and maintenance jobs.
A significant hurdle to launching these courses quickly, Menard and Johnston said, is that there aren’t available teachers — industry veterans with years of experience — to instruct the courses. Bristol is willing to pay to put people through instructor training courses and then hire them as instructors.
Meanwhile, a small group (of about 10 students total) have already graduated from an associate’s program at Bristol in wind power technology. When the Global Wind Organization certificate courses launch at the National Offshore Wind Institute, Bristol says it will be the only U.S. training program to offer both these certificate and degree programs together.
The ideal candidate to enroll in these courses at the wind institute, says Menard, is “somebody who is willing to travel.”
Offshore wind workers will have to move from project to project over the next decade (or more). Most workers, even the white-collar consultants, will have to change employers as different wind farms progress from the planning phase to construction, then from installation to operations and maintenance.
With the exception of maintenance jobs, most positions will last for no longer than three to five years. In construction, as in other industries, work could be seasonal.
And because the wind-staging port in New Bedford can only handle one tenant at a time, the city will also have to move from project to project.
Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, said that flexibility is “part of our DNA” as an industrial maritime port. “There’s a lot of opportunity to transfer, even from one industry to another, and to empower workers and small businesses.”
Even if workers are transient, administrators at Bristol said they hope their New Bedford training facility will become an anchor of the national industry, acting as a magnet for talent like the Mass Maritime course has.
Administrators said they expect to attract students from all along the eastern seaboard and even the West Coast, where hopes of “floating turbines” could make the deeper Pacific Ocean more capable of supporting offshore wind someday.
Having these local schools invest millions into wind training should, they said, help New Bedford and South Coast residents gain an advantage in the industry. But Bristol administrators noted that they can’t determine who gets hired; they can only offer the training for whoever’s interested.
Santos, of the economic development council, agrees that a state-of-the-art training facility will benefit New Bedford. “These are really good assets to work from to attract jobs and activity,” said Santos. “Those anchors are incredibly important.”
But after years of promises and hype about offshore wind’s boon to the local economy — Santos himself said “we think of New Bedford as a global leader” in offshore wind — there remains one question to measure the success of these investments and training programs: How many jobs will there be, really?
This is part one of a two-part series. You can read the second story tomorrow: Developers promised local jobs in offshore wind — are they delivering?
This New Bedford Light project was supported by a fellowship with the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. This is part one of a two-part series.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org