WASHINGTON'S LEADING BUSINESS MAGAZINE

Wind energy may be hot, but can it create jobs?

Forecasts are calling for wind energy to grow, but the job market may not grow with it.

Washington has a well kept secret that most people on the West side of the mountains probably haven’t heard. If you listen closely, you just might hear it whistling past your open window. According to a study compiled by Washington State University employees, Washington has the fifth largest installed wind capacity in the United States. On top of that, the demand for wind turbines is rapidly outpacing the supply, leaving an employment vacancy that may soon be filled.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting that the demand for wind power will fuel growth. “The industry's growth should increase demand for skilled workers,” it wrote in a recent report. However, there is speculation that the growth will begin to slow down in as little as five years. While there are several large wind projects on the horizon in Washington State, mostly notably a PSE project on the lower Snake River, the majority of the prime real estate for wind farms has been accounted for.

New projects are likely to move inward toward the central United States where there is more pristine land for wind-based power generation. However, there is a possibility that privately held land, mostly farm land, will be available for windmills in Washington. When a windmill is built on privately held land, the power company pays a stipend to the land owner.

Alan Hardcastle, a Senior Research Associate at WSU, has been investigating wind energy as part of the WSU’s Extension Energy Program. Hardcastle believes that there will be growth in the wind sector and that jobs will become available.

These jobs will fall into two main categories. The first category is planning, which includes construction, zoning and design. These jobs will depend largely on the number of wind farms that Washington constructs each year, and could decline rapidly if the demand for wind power in Washington decreases.

The second category is maintenance and repair. Although maintaining windmills doesn’t require a large workforce, there is a possibility that the demand for the job will increase, especially when the currently aging workforce retires.

Although Hardcastle predicts that jobs in the windmill and wind power sector will see at least moderate growth, he admits that the education system is currently not setup to handle the training required for these jobs. There are wind programs available, like a wind technician class in Vancouver that students can complete in six months.

Hardcastle thinks that preparing students for a field as limited as wind may not be as effective as providing them with a broader skill set, like focusing on energy in general. After completing an energy degree, students can earn a certificate in their desired field, or even earn multiple certificates so that they have the ability to move between different fields.

Quick hit programs that provide only a specialized skill are great for filling job gaps, but they don’t create a hearty workforce that has the ability to grow with the industry, and in turn fuel industry growth. Because of Washington's established wind farms, it is possible that jobs could be created with the intent to train new wind farm technicians and other workers.

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