In 2023, wind turbine technicians for the Vineyard Wind project are scheduled to start their jobs on the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm. They will take a crew transfer vessel (or possibly a helicopter) from Vineyard Haven to one of the roughly 700-foot-tall turbine towers about 15 miles out to sea.
After landing, they will climb from the base to get to the top component, called the nacelle, which houses sensitive instruments, connects with the blades and creates a confined space where the technicians will complete maintenance or repairs. As necessary, the techs may also work on the exterior — standing atop the turbine and hundreds of feet above the Atlantic for work that requires harnesses, a safety suit and an “adventurous spirit” as one Vineyard Wind manager put it.
Before they do any of this, though, they’ll need to obtain special certification and education by taking courses in electrical machinery, hydraulics, ecology and wind power technology. In Southeastern Massachusetts, two schools are offering such programs: Bristol Community College and Adult & Community Education Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV). On the island, three students who started in January of 2020 have completed their coursework this winter, with another five or so scheduled to finish in another year. They’ll be available for hire by General Electric, Vineyard Wind’s turbine supplier, if the company wants them — and if they want to go.
With the acknowledgement that no job is guaranteed to a particular person, a project partner said the technician jobs will ultimately be filled by island residents. However, hired graduates will need to spend months training in upstate New York with GE and then likely a year deployed at one of GE’s onshore U.S. wind farms to get on-the-job training — a commitment that one student said could be a “monkey wrench” for some.
Joining a fast-growing industry
Wind turbine technician is the second-fastest growing occupation in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for this position is expected to grow from 6,900 jobs in 2020 to 11,700 by 2030.
As of May of 2020, the labor bureau listed a median annual wage of $56,230, but a state report projects higher pay. Vineyard Wind and GE Renewable Energy representatives would not disclose technician salaries for this project, stating they consider it confidential.
About 20 technician jobs will be created for this project, representatives said — a small part of the hundreds of jobs that Vineyard Wind and elected officials have said will be created locally for both the turbine construction and operations and maintenance.
Technician work includes inspecting the physical integrity of the turbines; climbing them to make internal and external repairs; replacing parts; performing routine maintenance; and working with electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems. In addition, all techs will have significant safety training, including underwater escape training from a helicopter, according to a 2020 information session with Vineyard Wind and ACE MV.
In Massachusetts, about 35 people have enrolled in Bristol’s programs on the South Coast and Martha’s Vineyard as of late 2021. ACE MV’s first cohort was originally just under 20 students, but about 10 had signed up to take a single electrical machinery course, said Holly Bellebuono, executive director of the school. The numbers dwindled further in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, as people lost their jobs or housing due to unexpected rent increases.
Michael Friedman, a 55-year-old IT operations engineer for a bank, is one of the few students in ACE MV’s second cohort, which is set to graduate in January of 2023. He said he was curious about wind turbines so he enrolled to take evening courses after work.
“I’m not sure what’s gonna happen,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn, and if things happen … I will believe it after the fact.”
The second cohort at ACE MV started with seven, but one student lost housing and the other, a high schooler, didn’t pass the first class, Bellebuono said in a recent interview.
High schooler students are eligible for the program as long as they are at least 17 years old. It’s structured to be taken on a part-time basis over two years to account for people who work full-time jobs or for students who have classes during the day.
Most of the students are men but there is one woman, Bellebuono said. There is a bit of cultural mix, with some Brazilian students.
“That’s a big push on our end,” she said. “There’s a big Brazilian population on the island as well as Wampanoag Indian or Native American. So we’re working to make sure that all of these folks are aware of the program and can take advantage of it if they’re interested.”
Bellebuono noted, though, that language can be a barrier. She said a Brazilian woman with a lot of wind turbine experience could not participate because her English language skills were not good enough. Undocumented status is another barrier in terms of finding employement after receiving an education, she said.
The ACE MV program is a partnership with Bristol and Vineyard Power — a nonprofit organization and community partner of Vineyard Wind. Whereas anyone can enroll in the Bristol-only program, the ACE MV program is specifically for Martha’s Vineyard residents.
“The ultimate goal is that they would work here, but because the turbines aren’t even built yet, there’s going to be a year or two where they’re going to have to work elsewhere,” Bellebuono said. “The whole idea is to provide current residents with secure employment because it’s such a fragile economy here. It’s such a seasonal economy, that to get a year-round, well-paying job would be really fantastic.”
In the fall of 2021, GE officials visited Martha’s Vineyard and met some of the students, including Friedman. He said it was then that he learned more concretely about the length of the training program in Schenectady County, New York, and the need to work elsewhere before possibly working for Vineyard Wind.
“That’s kind of a monkey wrench,” Friedman said, noting he has a child and a mortgage, as do some other students. “Once we get more information … more specifics on how it’s going to go, we can make decisions … I don’t think anyone is ready to quit their job.”
Technicians who are selected will train for approximately 11 weeks at GE’s Renewable Energy Learning Center in Niskayuna, New York, where thousands of technicians have received training before servicing onshore wind turbines across the country, according to a joint statement from Vineyard Wind and GE Renewable Energy.
In response to a question about where workers might go after training, the companies’ representatives said it is “premature to comment on exactly where” technicians will go for on-site training. The representative said they expect most technicians will need an additional year of training afterward at one of GE’s U.S. onshore wind farms for hands-on experience.
“We are committed to making sure that the technicians that do those jobs have the training that they need to do them safely and well, a key step in delivering power reliably,” the joint statement read.
Vineyard Wind has established a goal of having 100% of operations and maintenance staff be island residents within five years of the project being operational, said Richard Andre, president of Vineyard Power.
“As anything, it’s an ambition; it’s an aspiration. Yeah, there might be some people who move here, but the real push is to try to create as many jobs for local islanders,” he said when asked if some hires could be people that move there for the job.
Andre said the current estimate is about 20 technicians that will work year-round, which GE Renewable energy confirmed, with some additional seasonal technicians to work during busy months. He said GE’s plan by early 2022 is to hire six technicians who will be island residents.
Given only three island residents have completed the ACE MV program as of January, per Bellebuono, The Light asked Andre and a GE Renewable Energy representative if those graduates will be hired before getting trained, or if there are people already living on or have recently moved to the island who have the requisite turbine experience.
“The goal of our partnership with ACE MV and BCC is to build momentum for an industry that will be new to the island and requires specific training for residents,” Andre said in an email response. “We’re just beginning that work and are excited that there’s interest from residents. We’ll be working every day to make sure that as many people who are qualified and interested in working in this industry have the opportunity to do so in the years to come as we grow this local renewable energy industry.”
The GE representative said in an email response that they are committed to hiring as many qualified and local residents as possible.
Studying on the mainland
Across Buzzards Bay in New Bedford, Bristol offers two tracks of learning for wind turbine technology: a certificate and an associate’s degree. As with the ACE MV program, these tracks are designed for part-time students.
As of the winter of 2021, Bristol had 25 students enrolled: eight for the associate’s degree program and 17 for the certificate program. Like at ACE MV, most of the students at Bristol are men.
Financial aid is available for both. For the ACE MV program, which can cost just under $7,000, Bellebuono said the first two cohorts received scholarship support from MassCEC and that going forward, the school will have specific scholarships for minorities, women and fishermen, some of which can cover full tuition.
The Massachusetts Legislature this fall passed the fiscal year 2022 budget, which earmarked $13 million for MassCEC to support more training for the offshore wind industry workforce. The funds can be issued as grants to higher education institutions, vocational-technical programs, labor organizations, and regional employment boards for basic safety training, professional certificates, and internship programs.
Sarmad Saman, dean of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics at Bristol, said the school has received queries from people who work for onshore wind farms. He noted the skills obtained through Bristol’s programs can be applied to onshore work until the offshore wind farms are ready. More generally, he said they receive two to three inquiries weekly from people interested in the wind program.
Saman and Assistant Professor of Offshore Wind Energy Yashwant Sinha explained this could be a lifetime job as the turbines may have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years. The degree and certificate are also meant to enable a graduate to work anywhere around the world, not just in the United States, they said.
ACE MV’s website also states that graduates can work as turbine and foundation installers or operation and maintenance technicians for onshore wind farms.
Saman said that with federal backing (such as the Biden administration’s goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030), the future of the industry will be “enormous.”
“We’re getting more and more inquiries, not only from individuals, but from companies that want to work with us,” Saman said.
Asked what companies inquired, Saman said he could not disclose that information, but that he thinks there’s going to be a “huge expansion” the minute the first turbine is built.
“I’m very confident of that … We’ve designed our program to meet that need,” Saman said.
Bellebuono said ACE MV expects four to five students for the next class starting this January. They would be the third cohort for this training program. Registration will remain open until the day before classes begin the week of Jan. 25.
“It would be great to have more,” Bellebuono said.
Email Anastasia Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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