Cloud County Community College is training workers for America's fastest-growing jobs - wind technicians

By Erin Mathews Staff writer emathews@salina.com

CONCORDIA — Bruce Graham could be considered the real wind beneath the blades of many of the turbines spinning in Kansas.

When he noticed an advertisement that Cloud County Community College was looking for someone to start a wind energy technology program more than a decade ago, Graham thought the opportunity sounded exciting.

A high school teacher at the time, he had experience teaching most of the various skill sets a wind technician must have to do the job — electrical, hydraulic and mechanical systems, as well as safety procedures. He since has learned a thing or two about computer networking.

Graham started in 2006 teaching a night class to four students.

"Things built pretty quickly after that," Graham said. "Now we offer 30 different classes with multiple sections. In the fall, we'll have 110 students."

The wind energy program now has six full-time faculty and the largest enrollment of any curriculum offered at CCCC, Graham said.

About 700 Cloud County graduates are working at wind farms all over Kansas, across the nation and in other countries, he said. Many of them have worked their way through the ranks and are now in charge of hiring. They often call Graham to see if there are newly minted wind technicians available to hire.

Graham said 100 percent of the program's graduates who have sought employment in the field have found a job. Starting wages are $18 to $21 an hour with benefits, and technicians willing to work overtime make even more.

"We have students who make $110,000 a year," he said. "That's not bad for a 19- or 20-year-old student just getting started."

CCCC was a pioneer in wind energy education. The college's program is one of only eight in the nation that have received the American Wind Energy Association's seal of approval.

Graham said CCCC and Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa, have a friendly debate going about which college was first in the nation to offer a wind energy technology program.

"They had their building and students first, but we got Board of Regents approval first," he said. "They just made it work a little faster."

Graham said CCCC is the only college in Kansas offering either a one-year certification program in wind energy technology or a two-year wind energy associate of applied science degree. It is the only school in the nation offering certification in wind turbine blade repair. It also offers a certificate in electrical substations — which every wind farm has — and is launching a new certification and degree program in small unmanned aircraft systems — the type of drones used to inspect wind turbine blades, power lines and substations.

He said most of the college's graduates work in operation and maintenance at one of the many wind farms in Kansas. The pay is good, but the work can be physically and mentally demanding.

"I tell the students I don't want to sugarcoat anything — they'll be out working in the heat in summer and in the cold in winter; they'll have to lift heavy objects, get greasy and dirty, and climb wind turbines that are 270 feet or more; they have to work in confined spaces, and they have to do all that work safely," Graham said.

Graham makes sure his students have the wide array of knowledge they need to work in wind energy.

"It's different from a lot of industries because every one of our students has to know every one of these areas: electrical, hydraulics, mechanical, computer networking and safety," he said. "They're often working in remote locations, and you can't climb to the top of a wind turbine and find out it's a hydraulics problem and say, 'I don't do hydraulics.' "