Iowa job creation seen in solar, wind power

Kirkwood responds with training

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April 3, 2014 | 12:53 pm

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sometime in May visitors to Kirkwood Community College may witness students jumping out of a wind turbine and rapidly coming down a rope more than 400 feet to the ground.

The emergency controlled descent training will be part of the graduation for students enrolled in the college’s two-year solar and wind turbine energy training program. Thirty-nine students are enrolled with college officials receiving almost weekly inquiries from potential employers.

A report by Navigant Consulting of Chicago projects the nation’s wind industry will create 54,000 jobs over the next four years. Those jobs would include 46,000 manufacturing positions at plants like Clipper Windpower in Cedar Rapids and Acciona Windpower in West Branch as well as 8,000 jobs for installers and technicians.

Industry advocates say the job forecast is contingent on Congress passing a bill extending a 2.2-cents-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit that is due to expire Dec. 31. The wind energy industry is predicting a sharp loss of existing manufacturing jobs and future positions for installers and technicians if the tax credit is not extended.

A report by the Solar Foundation and BW Research Partnership’s Green LMI division forecasts the hiring of more than 13,000 photovoltaic solar array installers over the next year in the United States. In Iowa, a March 2011 report by the Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City projected more than 2,500 jobs would be created if the state enacted incentives promoting the development and installation of 300 megawatts of solar energy over a five-year period.

With demand rising in Iowa and the nation for trained and certified solar and wind energy technicians, Kirkwood took the step in late 2010 of creating a formal energy sector worker training program.

[pullout_quote credit="Jeff Mitchell, Kirkwood dean of industrial technologies" align="right"]There is a growing demand for these skills and the technology is just exploding.[/pullout_quote]Kirkwood was awarded a State Energy Sector Partnership grant for $464,726 to train 130 workers for jobs in wind and solar energy. By the time the funding ends in January, 90 students and 40 people working in wind and solar energy will receive training and earn more than a dozen required industry and federal safety certifications.

At about the same time Kirkwood was applying for the partnership grant, Clipper Windpower approached the college offering to provide equipment for a state-of-the-art training center. Jeff Mitchell, Kirkwood dean of industrial technologies, said the donation took the college’s expectations up a notch.

"That’s the first time that we understood the potential for this facility to be a center of excellence," Mitchell said. "Our president and board of trustees saw the potential for the program and committed to constructing an addition to Jones Hall to house the training center.

"What really added the icing on the cake was our ability to bring Clipper Windpower’s lead trainer, David Bennett, on board as our instructor."

Kirkwood is training wind turbine technicians, photovoltaic solar array installers and solar thermal hot water system installers. The occupations pay anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000 annually, according to industry data.

"There is a growing demand for these skills and the technology is just exploding," Mitchell said. "We want to make these students as versatile as possible so they will actually be ‘recession-proof’ throughout their career."

Mitchell said many of those enrolled in the wind and solar programs are non-traditional college students who formerly worked in other industries. Nine of every 10 students have been out in the work force for at least a year after leaving school, he said. A little less than one-half are 24 or older, he said.

For Jim Hood of Ely, returning to school offered an opportunity to join an emerging industry.

"I think this will be very beneficial as the renewable energy market grows in the future," said Hood, who is due to graduate in May. "It’s kind of intimidating at first in terms of the size of everything, but you learn to move things with machines instead of your back."

Kirkwood’s program was hailed by Deputy U.S. Secretary of Labor Seth Harris during a recent visit.

"What I’ve seen here at Kirkwood is exactly what will be needed to accomplish the president’s goal of retraining 2 million American workers for sustainable jobs paying middle class salaries," Harris said. "We see community colleges as a critical component of preparing the skilled workers that American businesses need to be competitive."

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