Iowa Lakes Community College teaches its future wind technicians more than just how to repair turbines.

Building a professional workforce is an essential, but often overlooked, component of wind-energy development.

Thanks to private landowners in the heartland, wind-energy development is now a mainstay in rural communities that needed a modern hedge against agricultural and fossil fuel volatility.

“Our diplomas represent more than degrees,” said recent graduate John Kleppinger. “They represent drive, determination, and resiliency — key ingredients to reaching any goal. Even though I’m not certain where I’ll wind up, I now have the ability to pursue what I’m passionate about. I can now achieve my dreams and the life I’ve imagined.”

Since rolling out the nation’s first Associate in Applied Science Degree in Wind Energy and Turbine Technology in 2004, Iowa Lakes has been a leader in delivering training and education to meet a steadily growing demand for operations and maintenance technicians across the country and abroad. (Courtesy: Iowa Lakes Community College)

What does being a professional really mean? Professionals are defined by service to the common good, specialized skills and training required for entry into the field and deliberate development from the rookie to novice to expert to master.

It isn’t enough to advocate for an industry if that field wishes to be called a profession. Since turbines are a visible part of the landscape, technicians are required to be ambassadors of the industry in communities where they are now raising families.

A deliberate process of developing talent — not just hiring it — both on the job and formally, is necessary to ensure that the wind-energy field grows the right leaders.

It is a common mistake to assume that people just come by leadership naturally, or that there is always someone with the right skill waiting for a job offer. Leaders are indeed made by those who understand that one’s position doesn’t denote leadership.

None can look back on their experiences and say they succeeded on their own. Understanding the pathway of professional development is critical, and the pathway begins with the understanding that all doing is learning and all learning is knowing.

In January 2011, the Wind Energy & Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College was one of the first three programs nationwide to earn the American Wind Energy Association’s Seal of Approval for Wind Turbine Service Technician Programs. (Courtesy: Iowa Lakes Community College)

This concept is evident in the nation’s first Associate in Applied Science in Wind Energy and Turbine Technology at Iowa Lakes Community College, where developing the person is as important as developing skills.

It can’t be overstated that a cornerstone of professional development is skill. Expert power is an essential building block of leadership and must be demonstrated in order to earn trust and respect from others.

As a person earns skills, an essential part of developing individuals along a “whole person concept” is mentorship in the art of building a network, articulating what they bring to the workforce, lifelong learning, and what a professional development pathway looks like.

At Iowa Lakes, that conversation begins with every prospective student and continues after graduation.

Foundational instruction means that consequences of decisions are an integral part of the student’s lived experience, from safety to team dynamics. Planned values opportunities are built into lectures and demonstrated in labs so that students live the consequences of their approach to problems.

Classes in the Wind Energy & Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College cover many aspects of the wind-energy industry, including safety training as well as extensive training in electrical theory and practical application, mechanical systems, hydraulic theory, and practical application and field training. (Courtesy: Iowa Lakes Community College)

In the course of experimenting, planning, and problem solving, individual values are modified, reinforced, and refocused with a responsibility message driven by something bigger than a paycheck or a stable job future.

This is where the seeds of leadership are sown, and where the greatest teacher — failure — is applied in developmental lessons that build versatile, resilient leadership traits.

Alongside technical and safety training, Iowa Lakes identifies a pathway to the next level in professional development. From the lucrative opportunity presented to graduates entering the field, springs a look over the horizon at what lies ahead.

By engaging students with a certified career coach early and often, conversations that focus students on how to take the next steps expand the graduate’s understanding of what motivates them and how to achieve it.

If a person chooses to gain experience in the field and then lead people, students are linked to options tailored to give working adults a degree that develops those skills. If a person wants to pursue engineering after valuable field experience, we identify a pathway to becoming an engineer who is more than just a designer.

Iowa Lakes Community College students use a 1.65 MW working turbine about a mile and a half south of the Iowa Lakes Community College’s Estherville campus as an educational laboratory. (Courtesy: Iowa Lakes Community College)

No matter the graduate’s dreams, a plan, a pathway, and experience in how to make it happen are essential. These so-called soft skills are the hardest to earn and take the longest time to develop. Our deliberate approach to engaging students in the process continuously produces graduates with transferrable skills, prepared to go farther.

To reinforce the value of core transferrable skills, take it from Ross Raymond, a 2018 graduate of Iowa Lakes’ Engineering Technology program.

“As a 27-year-old mechanic, unhappy with my job, I made the decision to go back to school in the hope of finding a career that I enjoy,” Raymond said. “I chose the Engineering Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College. At Iowa Lakes, numerous opportunities became available to me. I completed an internship with a major soybean processing facility and am currently working at a company called Windtest here at the college that does a variety of testing on wind turbines.

“These opportunities would not have been available to me had I not made the decision to further my career in renewables,” he said. “I look forward to what the future has in store for me, and I’m thankful for the help and guidance that the staff at Iowa Lakes provided.”

Students in the Wind Energy & Turbine Technology program use ground trainers and laboratories as well as the college’s working utility scale turbines. (Courtesy: Paul Gates Photography)

By establishing a connection to adulthood, from high school, through an effective community college experience, Iowa Lakes builds understanding of professional development and lifelong learning. It breaks through myths to produce versatile, self-reliant technicians, with recession-proof, core-transferrable skills every industry needs.

To produce critical thinkers and competent problem solvers, Iowa Lakes integrates teaching young people how the world works and what core values are in practice. It produces competence through experiential learning that puts integrity first and focuses on excellence in personal and professional mastery.

An understanding of what it means to have an impact on America’s energy future is vital to building a sense of service to people who may never know a graduate’s name yet will benefit from their drive to make a difference.