KALAMAZOO, MI -- Despite a push by President Trump to bring back the coal mining industry, wind energy is still a priority at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
The pioneering wind turbine technician training program has seen steady interest and enrollment since its first class in 2009. A total of 190 students have graduated from the program, getting jobs in locations throughout the United States.
A leader in wind turbine operations and maintenance technician training, which resides at Groves Center in Texas Township, grants certificates to 12 students every six months, said Tom Sutton, director of the KVCC Wind Energy and Technical Training Services.
The program, which was the first BZEE accredited program in the U.S,. stands today as the only program in the country where students can become internationally certified, Sutton said.
BZEE is an acronym for a German term of standards that tells schools the specific sets of skills technicians must know to work in the field. Other programs in the U.S. can teach wind turbine technician skills, but do not offer the BZEE accreditation.
The KVCC program also holds the American Wind Energy Association Seal of Approval, which means its curriculum meets the AWEA's core skill-set criteria.
"Quite frankly I think this is the program that prepares students the best for the highest paid, entry level positions in wind, and it's industry validated," Sutton said. "The industry tells us what to train and they validate our training by hiring our graduates."
The program has a 96 percent job placement rate for graduates, KVCC says.
In the late 2000s, when the push for renewable energies was in full swing at the national and state levels, the economy was also experiencing a recession that resulted in many skilled trades people being out of work. The wind turbine technician programs were able to retrain these people, who had electrical and mechanical skills, for wind, Sutton said.
More than 200 schools throughout the U.S. were given grant money to start technician training programs, but most of the programs were "textbooks and chalkboards," Sutton said.
After being plagued with falling enrollment and low job placement, many programs closed, leaving only about a dozen programs in the country, he said.
In more recent years, unemployment has dropped and there is a gap in the skilled trades, he said.
"We've done an incredible job of making everyone believe that when they leave high school, they have to get a four-year college degree," Sutton said.
Sutton said among the skilled trades, the position of wind turbine technician has remained a top paying job. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics listed it as No. 1 for job growth, stating that between 2014 and 2024, the number of jobs is expected to grow 108 percent.
The job of a wind turbine technician is in high demand, said Evan Vaughan, media relations officer for the AWEA.
"That really speaks to how well wind is working for the U.S.," Vaughan said.
The technicians who do the maintenance on the turbines "play a vital function," in the success of wind energy in the U.S., Vaughan said.
Graduates can get entry level positions where they work between 40 and 60 hours a week with the average salary being between $55,000 and $65,000.
"It's an opportunity to have not just a job, but a well-paying career," Vaughan said.
Job possibilities exist throughout the world, said Delia Baker, KVCC's program coordinator for technical services.
"There's a whole globe of opportunity out there," Baker said.
Ambassadors of technology
Meanwhile, Trump has put a focus on fossil fuels, saying repeatedly that he will bring back coal-mining jobs.
Trump's push is a sharp contrast from former Democratic Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who made wind energy a high priority, stating clean energy as one of her key foundation points and visiting Michigan turbine factories. Current Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has not championed wind energy to the same extent as Granholm.
Renewables such as wind energy face criticism both from some politicians and people living in rural areas where the wind turbines are erected. Some people have complained of health concerns, headaches and noise from the wind turbines when they are placed too close to homes.
Sutton said the school is aware of their critics and that technicians are trained to speak with the public, hoping to educate them on what they are doing in the field.
"Certainly, the students have to be an ambassador of the technology," Sutton said. "Part of what we teach our trainees is the ability to recognize when they can provide information to help educate people that don't know and when to just walk away from an argument."
There is a lot of "misinformation" surrounding wind energy and that people tend to have strong opinions on the topic, he said.
"We have run into people in the field who quite literally are mad because it's windy out and we won't shut those fans off. How do you deal with that?" Sutton said. "We have also run into people that have really good questions and just don't know. We can act as a subject matter expert and talk to them and educate them and help their understanding."
Educating people who live in towns surrounding wind turbines is important because the success of the industry relies on the support of the people, Vaughan said.
"Communities are the backbone of the wind industry," Vaughan said. "We couldn't grow if we didn't have the support of the communities."
Sutton attends the American Wind Energy Association's Wind Power on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the industry. Sutton recently took four of his students to participate in the event and work with legislators on wind energy's top policy initiatives, according to a KVCC Faculty Spotlight article.
Despite some criticism, the momentum of wind energy is past the point of return, Sutton said. Corporations such as General Motors, Google and Amazon participate in Power Purchase Agreements, which are contracts that guarantee an exchange of electricity from the wind farms for a fixed cost of energy for 20 years, he said.
"The price of coal, the price of other fossil fuels fluctuates daily, but once I lock in a fixed price of energy for 20 years -- talk about a nice business plan. There's no uncertainty. So, I don't think the momentum can stop now," Sutton said.
The KVCC program accepts only 24 students every year, among the 40 to 50 applications received. The program is not open enrollment, but instead accepts students after an interview process, math exam and climbing test, Sutton said.
The school looks for students who have certain aptitude for mechanical and electrical operations. Applicants must also be physically fit, and have no fear of heights, he said.
Most of the students come from outside of Michigan. The program also garners interest from many international students.
Since its opening, the school has accepted trainees every year for their "job ready on Day 1" based program. The hands-on class uses a competency based curriculum, meaning students must become 100 percent competent on each skill set before moving forward, that requires them to meet milestones during the 24-week class.
"We live it, eat it, breath it exactly the way they're going to have to do it in the field," Sutton said.
The first 22 days of the program are safety training days where students learn how to protect their bodies during the physical work as well as height safety training.
"We are working around 34,500 volts of electricity, 340 feet in the air in a confined space," Sutton said. "Any one single thing goes wrong, and people get hurt or die in this industry."
"Not only do they learn the individual competencies or skills like hydraulic bolt torqueing or tensioning for example, they learn that here in a very protective, safe environment," Sutton added. "Then we take them into the field, and we take them 340 feet up in the air in a wind turbine where they actually have to do that job with that hydraulic tool."
This article originally appeared on MLive.