The Coming Shortage of Qualified Wind Techs

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The 2014 report by European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) titled “EU Wind Industry Faces Critical Worker Shortage” [1] has identified a deficit in the EU of 7,000 qualified wind workers per year until 2030, after which the deficit will more than double to 15,000 workers per year. This report echoes a similar problem that we will face in the U.S. and Canada. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) website [2], the “employment of wind turbine service technicians in the U.S. is projected to grow 24 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.” The BLS also stated that “the number of wind turbines being installed is increasing, which should result in consistent and growing demand for wind techs. In fact, some areas have reported a shortage of qualified workers.”

Recently, President Obama announced a strategic carbon reduction plan that includes a large ramp up of wind turbine assets in the U.S. The Department of Energy (DOE) has published its Wind Vision report [3] that includes a projection of 30 percent generated wind power by 2035. If the coming shortage of qualified wind workers is not fully addressed by industry, government, and academia, it may grind these plans to a halt before they have a chance to really get off the ground. A long-term and comprehensive strategy has to be developed and implemented in order to prepare for the shortage in qualified techs.

There are various reasons for the coming worker shortfall that include the rapid expansion of new installed capacity over the last decade, worker demographics (retirement), the boom-bust cycles associated with the U.S. wind market, recruiting in remote locations, and the attempted commoditization of the industry.

In the U.S., the renewal and non-renewal cycle of the PTC has caused many companies to downsize during “non-PTC” years. This boom-bust cycle should have many qualified techs sitting idly by, waiting to be called up for duty. In reality, this is not the case, since most experienced wind techs who have built up enough skills to work outside of wind do not return to the industry. Many skilled workers are staying with more stable industries, such as medical, oil and gas, or aviation. According to Charles Clayton, the training manager for Suzlon, “We see no excess availability because those guys are so well ‘systems-trained,’ and they go on to other industries.”

In general, there is a major brain-drain of skilled workers retiring in the U.S. and Canada. Many experienced power plant operators and experts are leaving the workforce in droves with fewer people to replace them. The days of grabbing anyone who can fog a mirror and pump grease are over. The responsibility of operating a multi-million dollar, highly-automated, robotic power plant is huge. In regard to the challenges associated with finding qualified workers in Canada, Mike Doherty, the director of Learning and Continuous Improvement for Shermco Canada, said, “It is a massive business issue for wind or any industry to get qualified technical staff. Even the 55- and 60-year-old folks now will be retiring in the next five or 10 years, and there will be a massive grab of workers that must be developed for the long-term.

“Within any industry, training and development is key to retention, but there has been an attempt by some wind companies to commoditize this industry by hiring cheap labor and not developing them beyond basic safety standards in order to win bids for contracts. This leaves techs feeling uncommitted and just waiting for the chance to jump ship to a better company where they see a long-term career. According to Doherty, “Your best people are going to go where the best jobs are.”

The remote locations of wind farms can also add to the problem of finding qualified workers in the wind industry. Many managers within remote locations will hire someone based on some electrical or mechanical background and a good work ethic. According to Sandeep Sharma, the senior manager of Renewables for Capital Power, “We are hiring for success, not failure. We need a little bit more effort to ensure that our employees are successful in remote locations.” These are all issues that lead to worker attrition and must be factored into addressing the coming shortfall of qualified wind workers.

Addressing each one of the causes for the worker shortfall in isolation will still only solve part of the problem. A comprehensive action plan has to be implemented by the wind industry, government, and academia and should include improvements in workforce development, education and training, recruitment, and retention in order to get ready for the massive shortage of qualified wind workers that is approaching in the near future.  

References
1. http://www.ewea.org/fileadmin/files/library/publications/reports/Workers_Wanted_TPwind.pdf
2. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/wind-turbine-technicians.htm#tab-6
3. http://energy.gov/eere/wind/wind-vision