Texas wind energy firms struggle to drum up student interest

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The wind industry promises attractive salaries. But a lack of training programs and waning political support make it difficult to find new recruits.

Texas State Technical College wind energy technology instructor James Chung, center, helps Steven Vasquez, left, and Shayne Howard, right, during a class in Sweetwater on March 5. Wind energy employers from the area work closely with TSTC in shaping the curricula, so recruiters know students will develop the skills they need.— a weekly dispatch about the people, places and policies defining Texas, produced by Texas Tribune journalists living in communities across the state.

Here on the eastern edge of the Permian Basin, stable paychecks and the chance to travel draw young people like Vasquez into the wind industry. And once Vasquez secures his associate’s degree in wind energy technology, he knows he has a good shot of finding a job in the field after college. Saunders is part of a wave of Texans in the oil-rich Permian Basin who made the jump from oil and gas to wind energy in the last decade. He was drawn to the burgeoning renewable energy industry because of the stability in pay. It was a sharp contrast to life in the oil fields, where salaries fluctuate based on the price of the oil barrel. Starting salaries for wind technicians are about $47,000 a year, and people in the field can make up to $90,000, according to the U.S.

A workforce gap could threaten to slow down the growth of the industry, Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin, said. “It’s a catch-22, we’re growing year over year,” said Aaron Nelson, a wind technician out of McCamey. “Me personally, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find the right people.”

Vasquez had initially planned to stay close to his family in Midland for college; his mother wanted him to attend the local community college. But Midland College does not offer a program in wind energy. But wind companies say it takes more time to bring a new hire with no experience up to speed, a heavier lift in an industry that is already overburdened and urgently needs qualified staff.

“We didn't get the interest that we thought we would get,” she said. “We just weren't getting enough students enrolling in those classes. And therefore we basically lost the use of those unique courses that we had to have.” One wind energy recruiter told the Tribune that firms have a definite “favoritism” toward wind technicians who graduate from TSTC. Wind energy employers work closely with TSTC in shaping the curricula, so recruiters know students will have the skills they need.

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