Jobs being created through the winds of change
Sweetwater, Texas, 225 due west of Dallas, made its mark in the late 1800s as a railroad hub. Today, it’s known for the power of wind that blows in off the prairies.
Sweetwater is the county seat of Nolan County, home to 1,371 turbines, according to Sweetwater’s Chamber of Commerce. It is also home to the main campus of Texas State Technical College (TSTC), which has offered an associate’s degree in wind energy and applied engineering since 2006.
“If my students get through the program and graduate with no background issues, I can pretty much guarantee they will get a job,” said Heath Ince, chairman of the college’s wind energy technology program and applied engineering department.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of jobs for wind-techs, as they are known, to increase by 24 percent from 2012 to 2022, well above the average growth rate for all jobs of over 11 percent. Still, it’s starting from a small base. In 2012, there were 3,200 wind tech jobs; by 2022, it is expected to jump to around 4,000.
“We have the jobs, but we can’t find the people,” said Ron Widup, CEO of Irving, Texas-based Shermco Industries, which provides maintenance and repair services to the wind industry, among others. “There’s a tremendous demand for that classification of technician and engineer.”
Behind this growing demand for wind technicians and engineers is the growing demand for wind power. From 2008 to 2012, the amount of electricity generated by wind increased by 154 percent. Wind is now the fifth largest source of electricity in the U.S. While wind only accounts for 4.4 percent of the total, it could generate 10 percent of all electricity in the U.S. by 2020, according to the Department of Energy.
“I think it’s got a big future” said Harold Perrigo, a 33-year-old student in TSTC’s wind program, when asked why he wants to be a wind technician. “It’s a young industry and it is something that’s going to grow exponentially over the next 10-15 years.”
The history of wind power has not been without its doubters, or its stops and starts. In the past, its development and growth have relied heavily on federal and state tax incentives. As the incentives expired and were renewed, the industry’s growth waxed and waned.
Still, the American Wind Energy Association said the cost of generating electricity from wind has been cut in half in the last five years, and the investment bank Lazard points out that producing electricity from wind is almost as cheap as traditional sources like coal and gas, even without the subsidies.