Demand for wind energy workers outpacing supply in Iowa

By John Upton (Climate Central), Amber Alexander

This segment and story were produced through a partnership between Climate Central and NBC Who13 Des Moines.

Derek Gruis didn’t miss a day of work because of shutdowns during the pandemic, nor has he feared for his financial future amid the economic tumult it has unleashed. The 29-year-old lead technician at the Beaver Creek Wind Farm manages a team of 15 other wind energy technicians tasked with keeping 170 turbines spinning.

“We’re essentially a power plant so we were considered essential,” said Gruis, who described extensive protocols designed to protect the workers from COVID. He commutes about 45 minutes north from his home just south of Des Moines. “There’s always work needed to get done, so that kind of attests to what the job security is here.”

Despite strong demand for the workers, community colleges in Iowa and in other states without the kind of established energy industries found in Texas are having trouble recruiting enough students to fill the vacancies.

Wind technicians are members of one of the fastest-growing professional fields in the U.S. So, too, are solar installers, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects demand for both to grow at least another 50 percent this decade. While solar and wind installers help construct a project then move onto building a new one, technicians work throughout the life of a wind farm to service and maintain the turbines and sometimes the automated control systems.

As the wind and solar sectors expand, they’re improving air quality and slowing warming caused by pollution from gas and coal power plants. As more electric vehicles drive down streets and highways, the solar and wind energy that provides charges for these vehicles will reduce emissions from cars, buses and trucks. In recent years, transportation has become America’s leading source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution.

Of the nearly 500,000 Americans working in jobs that support the generation of renewable energy, including wind and solar, roughly 1,100 work in the cities of Des Moines and West Des Moines, according to the 2021 Clean Jobs, Better Jobs report from E2, a national group of clean energy industry companies and leaders. That represents about a fifth of such jobs across all of Iowa.

“We’ve seen coal plant retirements across the state and wind is picking up the slack,” said Jordan Oster of the Iowa Environment Council, a coalition of groups and individuals within the state focused on environmental quality. “We’re replacing polluting sources of energy with clean, renewable, emissions-free power.”

The Midwest is a hotspot for wind farming, and Iowa is among the states leading in this clean energy boom. Wind industry figures show nearly 6,000 turbines are currently operating across the state. According to an analysis of data gathered by Climate Central’s WeatherPower tool since the start of October, those turbines have been generating more than twice as much power as Iowa’s households alone consumed.

Brian Selinger, a state economic development official who works on energy projects, said Iowa has lots of wind blowing through it and plenty of space on farms for turbines. And he said the state has worked aggressively to support the growth of the wind energy sector, such as through grants and loans to support innovative projects.

“We actively promote and market our wind strengths,” Selinger said, noting that the growing abundance of clean energy is helping convince large tech corporations with ambitious clean energy goals to set up operations in Iowa. “It’s one of our greatest resources and one of our strongest economic development assets. It has a rippling effect across our state.”

President Joe Biden and others have been pushing for an effort to overhaul the nation’s electrical and transportation infrastructure to achieve ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. If that’s successful, Princeton University Net-Zero America project analyses suggest the Hawkeye state could see roughly 70,000 workers directly and indirectly employed by the wind sector within a generation from now.

Such a national effort to reign in heat-trapping pollution would also protect Iowa and its farmers from rising temperatures and worsening floods and droughts.

With a two-year degree from a community college like Gruis attended, he says wind technicians could look forward to eventually earning “upwards of $70,000 to even close to six figures if they just jump into it with both feet and immerse themselves.” The E2 research indicates the average wage throughout the wind energy industry is $26 per hour.

The growth in wind farming in Iowa is providing economic opportunities beyond direct jobs. Farmers receive lease payments from wind farm operators, and those operators also pay local taxes. Wind energy manufacturers have opened new operations in the state, positioning themselves close to customers that purchase what are often heavy and difficult-to-transport components.

“The Midwest is really wind central and Iowa is a good demonstration of the significant direct and induced benefits that come from having a strong wind industry already in place,” said Katie Siegner, a researcher at RMI who co-authored the energy research group’s ‘Seeds of Opportunity’ report, which describes wind and solar energy as ‘new cash crops’ capable of providing more than $200 billion in direct economic benefits across the U.S. this decade. “It’s not just electricity and jobs they’re generating, they’re pumping a substantial amount of revenues into local rural economies.”

For students considering future careers as wind technicians, and for others mulling transitions into the field, Gruis said working at great heights is “going to be a factor” but “you become immune to it very quickly,” in part because of all the safety precautions put in place.

Gruis said an ideal candidate for the field would be “a well-motivated person that likes to work through solutions and work through problems, kind of free thinking and not afraid to get down and break a sweat and work with their hands.”

Demand for graduates of the two-year program for wind technicians at the Des Moines Area Community College, where Gruis did his training after finishing high school, is overwhelmingly strong. Still, instructor James Fitzpatrick says he struggles to fill his classrooms. This year, just nine of 20 available spots were filled by applicants.

“Most of them will be hired well before their graduation,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s way too many jobs and not enough qualified technicians.”