The wind energy field is blowing up, but a Maine training program is struggling to attract students
It's early September, the second week of classes at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, and a lab day for the wind power technology program.
Nineteen-year-old Maxwell Osborne of Waldoboro is building an electrical circuit that includes a light and a switch. By the time Osborne graduates in the spring, he'll be ready to climb hundreds of feet up towers to maintain and repair wind turbines. But first, he needs to learn basic electrical skills under the guidance of instructor Wayne Kilcollins.
And he has his undivided attention, because he's the only student in the class.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
"I like it," Osborne says. "It's fun. I learn better when there's less people because then I don't feel like awkward about other people."
Osborne may like it, but it's not great for the school — or for Maine's renewable energy workforce.
When Maine's first wind energy project was built in Mars Hill more than a decade ago, it ushered in a new era for renewable energy — along with high hopes for jobs. To meet the demand for wind technicians, Northern Maine Community College launched the state's first — and still only — comprehensive training program. It started with a bang: nearly three dozen students enrolled. But in the years since, enrollment has plummeted.
"If I had 50 students right now, graduating in the spring, they'd have jobs within New England," says instructor Wayne Killcollins.
Kilcollins helped create the program in 2009 and wrote one of the first textbooks on the subject. He says he gets calls and emails every month from developers around the country looking to hire technicians.
"Right now in Maine, we do not have enough technicians, enough trained technicians for the jobs that are out there," he says.
Wind turbine technician is the second-fastest growing occupation in the U.S., behind nurse practitioners, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Within the next decade, employment opportunities in the fields are expected to grow by 44%, with roughly 2,000 new openings each year.
The projections are positive, so why is enrollment at Northern Maine Community College so low?
"I think if you look at the interest in wind, wind power, I think people are still skeptical that that has a bright future," says NMCC President Tim Crowley. The state's changing political landscape, he says, also may have affected interest in the program.
"So we thought it would be up and down," says Crowley. "And it has been, as the political winds change, no pun intended."
Some industry observers say interest has shifted toward solar. And Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, says there just hasn't been a lot of wind energy development in the state in recent years.
"When wind was really burgeoning, you know, five, six, seven, eight years ago, you saw a lot more interest in the program, because people were hearing about it, 'Oh, my friend is working in that industry. 'Oh, you see a project being built.' And so I think that is really the outcome. You see an industry has stagnated. And so therefore, the workforce interest has as well," he says.
And NMCC school officials acknowledge they may need to do more to make potential students aware of the program.
"In my own experience, I can tell you, I didn't know it was there," says Tyler Arndt.
Arndt is originally from Presque Isle and remembers driving by the wind farm on Mars Hill countless times. But he never thought about the jobs that are required to keep the turbines going. He enrolled in NMCC's wind technician training program in 2014 almost on a lark.
"When I decided that I was gonna go back to school, I picked the thing that sounded the coolest."
As it turned out, Arndt stumbled into a career that he loves. He says he got job offers within days of graduating. He started out in Kansas, eventually returned to Maine, and now works as a lead technician at a site just north of Ellsworth. Every day is different, he says. The views from the top of a turbine rival those atop Mt. Katahdin. And he believes in the mission of his work.
"I wanted to be a part of shifting the U.S. electrical grid from fossil fuels to renewables," says Arndt. "But you know, the renewable part isn't for everybody. So, just as a technical machine, it's super cool."
Meanwhile, Northern Maine Community College president Tim Crowley says the school is partnering with Maine Maritime Academy to develop a training program for offshore turbines so graduates will be able to work both on land and at sea. It will also allow students to be trained in either Presque Isle or Bucksport.
"Renewable energy is so important to Maine, and we have all the pieces," says Crowley. "We need to take advantage of that and build that. So that's why this program continues. Because we know that the future of renewable energy in Maine is very important to our economic development, and it's also very important to our climate. And so we're focused on this."
Wind power technology instructor Wayne Kilcollins says he's sometimes asked what it's like to work on wind turbines two or three hundred feet in the air.
"It's no different than working on a factory floor," he says. "It's just you get the better view in town. "