Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Outlook for Wind Turbine Technicians

Green careers are attracting a lot of interest, but it can be difficult to find reliable figures for projected growth and even current employment. Here is an update about wind service technicians, based on the best figures I was able to find.

Back in 2009, I researched several green occupations, including this one, for a special supplement to the Occupational Outlook Handbook that I was preparing for the publisher JIST Works. At that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics was not providing any figures for this occupation—neither for current nor projected employment. So I had to make my own calculations from data I found in government and industry sources.

The BLS now does report employment figures for wind service technicians. Last December, for example, the BLS released an estimate that 3,200 people were employed in the occupation in 2012 and that 4,000 will be in 2022, an increase of 24 percent. The BLS also estimated 800 job openings per year.

To try to get a sense of the current level of employment, I looked at the estimates of the Wind Energy Foundation. Understand that this organization exists to promote wind power, but we can avoid most possibility of boosterism if we focus on the current state of the industry rather than on projections of the future. The Wind Energy Foundation estimates total U.S. utility-scale wind-power capacity, in the second quarter of 2014, at just under 62,000 megawatts. If we assume that average turbine capacity is 2 megawatts (a fairly conservative figure) and that one operations and maintenance worker is needed for each 7 turbines (which was the ratio when I first researched this occupation), the number of these workers should be about 4,200. If we assume average turbine capacity of 3 megawatts, this still accounts for 2,950 workers.

These two estimates of workforce size bracket the 2012 estimate made by BLS, but it seems reasonable to expect that the occupation would have grown considerably in the past two years. Note that these figures apply only to operations and maintenance workers. Many other wind turbine technicians surely are engaged in constructing new capacity. In fact, again according to the Wind Energy Association, 14,000 megawatts of wind power capacity was under construction during the first half of 2014. So the occupation probably has expanded on roughly the scale projected by the BLS.

The wild card in projections for wind power capacity—and, therefore, employment of technicians—is whether or not this country will invest heavily in offshore installations. The most reliable winds are found there, and some industry observers believe that this coming year will see the beginnings of offshore wind-power projects, despite their high cost relative to dry-land installations.

One advantage that wind turbine technicians enjoy in the job market is that often they face little competition. This is partly because the technology is new and expanding rapidly, so not many trained workers are entering the job market compared to the demand for their services. But another reason is that many people do not like working at great heights and in confined spaces.

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