The view from the top of a wind turbine. Photo courtesy of Brandon Jones.

Wind passes over Brandon Jones’ head as he peaks over the hatch. He’s about 300 feet off the ground, as high as the Statue of Liberty, gazing over miles of farmland stretching toward the horizon.

“In the summertime, when the corn’s tall and the wind’s blowing, it kind of looks like the ocean,” he said.

Jones is one of several wind technicians who maintain the 71 turbines that make up the Sholes Wind Energy Center in Wayne, Nebraska — a job he started in November 2018 after graduating from a Northeast Community College program in Norfolk.

Wind technicians such as Jones, 24, are part of the United States’ second-fastest-growing career field — one projected to increase by 44% over the next decade. Nebraska’s need could be even greater as it builds more turbines and small towns look for economic opportunity.

“It’s bringing people in, a younger generation that’s going to settle down and raise families,” said Nathan Simpson who has co-taught Northeast Community College’s wind energy program since it started in 2009. “So it’s kind of spurred on a little bit of growth in some of these smaller communities that have been seeing decline for a lot of years.”

Brandon Jones poses in front of a wind turbine in northeast Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Brandon Jones.

For Jones, who lives in his hometown of Norfolk and commutes about 20 minutes to the wind farm, this job has given him the opportunity to make a good salary and stay close to his community. After four and a half years, and a few promotions, Jones said he’s making about $79,000.

Javier Lopez, 27, worked as a grocery store meat slicer, custodian and pizza delivery driver before finding Central Community College’s energy technology program. Now the Nebraska native works in Limon, Colorado, and after about a year is making $56,000.

Opportunities to climb the ladder quickly are plentiful in part because demand is high.

“Our rough count on jobs we were asked to provide positions for was roughly 250,” Simpson said. “And that’s not just locally. That’s kind of all over [the country].”

However, wind tech teachers say there needs to be more support for training this workforce. The state has two programs that together graduate about 10 students per year. Some also drop out early to take jobs, but still the numbers are low. Taylor Schneider, who leads Hastings’ program, has pitched expanding renewable programs to gubernatorial candidates, wrote op-eds and talked to local TV news.

“I don’t know what more to do,” he said. “I’ve tried it all. I’m stuck. I’m hitting a wall.”

Suzanne Tegen, assistant director with the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, said Nebraska can decide its role in this developing economy.

“If they don’t [train their own people], the wind farms will likely still happen, but the workers will come from other states,” she said.

Companies are also keenly aware that construction and workforce development have to work together, said Jesse Puckett, director of sustainability projects and community affairs for Enel North America, which operates the Rattlesnake Creek wind farm in Dixon County.

“If we want to keep growing renewable energy in Nebraska and across the country, we need more wind techs … It’s not enough for developers to simply build more wind turbines,” reads an email statement from Puckett, “we’ve got to recruit a workforce to maintain them.”

Estimating how many wind techs Nebraska will need is difficult.

The Nebraska Department of Labor said the state had 123 techs in 2018 and would need 28 more by 2028. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the state had between 100 and 220 in 2021. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates every seven turbines requires a technician, which would put Nebraska at about 276 techs currently working.

New construction also impacts demand. Since Jones started his job in 2018, Nebraska has grown its installed capacity by 63% — one of the highest rates in the country.

“It’s tough for schools to keep up with the boom in demand for wind,” Jones said. “It seems like development is just nonstop [moving] at a crazy rate.”

For others, wind techs will always be a small part of the job market compared to other, more plentiful trade work, such as construction, wiring homes or building data centers.

“Are there opportunities? Absolutely. But are there huge opportunities? Probably not,” said John Bourne, who spent 24 years with Omaha’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Others say the numbers don’t tell the full story. Even a handful of workers in a small town can make a big difference.

Simpson said about three-quarters of Northeast’s graduates stay in Nebraska. A 2020 NREL study found a majority of wind tech workers were homeowners who lived in their areas for longer than five years, spending money, paying taxes and raising kids.

“It’s an opportunity where [small towns] otherwise would struggle to bring in different industries,” Simpson said. “So yeah, there’s huge potential there.”

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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