Tulsa — The demand for wind power is at an all-time high. Just about every year, the wind sets a new record, recently putting close to 10 GW a year online. Yet it isn’t enough. States continue to set higher and higher renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The problem is that there is already a shortage of qualified wind technicians, managers and general staff. So where are the resources going to come from to fulfill an ever-expanding demand–a shortfall of literally millions of jobs–within a decade or so?
The wrong direction is to attempt to headhunt from existing utilities. They are already hurting on the personnel front so such a shortsighted strategy won’t go far. A better approach has been taken by Clipper Windpower of Carpinteria, Calif. It found an invaluable training pool: the military.
“Former military personnel have the leadership and hands-on skills needed in the renewable sector,” said Jeff Maurer, vice president of fleet services at Clipper. Maurer himself is a retired army colonel and attorney by trade.
Clipper had designed a prototype variable speed turbine with a distributed powertrain, four permanent magnet generators and advanced power electronics. Developed and tested under a grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the company prepared to enter the wind OEM market in late 2006 with its 2.5 MW Liberty model. To facilitate this, it built the Clipper Turbine Works plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Located near major road, rail and river barge services, it encompasses 330,000 square feet of manufacturing and spare parts distribution space.
Maurer said there were seven field service employees at that time with plans to install eight turbines in 2007, 65 in 2008 and 348 in 2009. This level of growth meant that field services would have to grow at an exponential rate to have the required personnel to install, commission and operate its fleet. In addition, a middle-level management stratum had to be created to organize, train and lead the job additions that would be required.
“When faced with the daunting task of building a workforce at Clipper in such a short time span, I remembered my experience with one of my former employers and turned to military recruiters,” Maurer said.
The company worked out an initial plan to identify 10 to15 graduates from armed services academies for mid-level management roles, as well as 40 technicians as installation and commissioning technicians. The focus was on West Point, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy graduates who had led divisions aboard naval vessels; Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who had served as troop leaders; and other military veterans with special training who could prove useful in building a training program or managing the transportation and logistics side of the business.
“My past experience told me that military personnel possess strong leadership skills, are organized, disciplined, process oriented and execute,” said Maurer. With this basic skill set, plus selecting the people with the skills that would transfer most easily to advanced wind turbine technology, he said he knew Clipper could build an excellent workforce in a short period of time.
Military placement organizations were briefed in detail on what the job requirements would be. Job fairs were scheduled to attract this audience and identify possible hires. Typically, 10 people are interviewed before an employer finds one qualified hire. In one job fair, Clipper hired 19 out of 20 candidates. Maurer said that if you understand job requirements and select people with the skill sets that you know will transfer quickly, your chances for successfully recruiting increase significantly.
The program has worked well for Clipper. The organization grew from seven employees in 2006 to 220 in 2009. This enabled it to meet every installation and commissioning milestone.
“We have staffed our O&M sites with outstanding personnel both from the civilian and military sector,” said Maurer. “Our site supervisors are retired Navy Chief Petty Officers who have worked either on nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers, with aviation technicians and machinists mates.”
Case in point: Dale Betz (top, left coordinating troop activities in Iraq and right, discussing training with a co-worker at Clipper University), manager of Training and Development at Clipper, served five years as platoon leader responsible for 30 soldiers in the U.S. Army Infantry and as executive office to over 220. He also worked as an executive officer at the Northern Warfare Training Center, where he trained over 800 soldiers a year. As a Special Forces commander of an Operational Detachment-Alpha, he led his team in three combat zones and numerous peace time deployments to improve the capability of U.S. allies to defend their countries. A placement company called Bradley-Morris connected him with Clipper. Having worked with Clipper for two years, his current role is to manage Clipper University.
“I was searching for a job that would allow me to serve other veterans or service members either through the defense sector or renewable energy,” said Betz. “Our reliance on foreign sources of energy does not improve the security of our country, nor will it contribute to the continued success of the U.S. A position at Clipper was appealing to me, more appealing than other jobs with higher pay and better benefits.”
Once hired, he attended a week-long orientation before enrolling in a Turbine Operations Course that taught technicians how to operate and troubleshoot the turbine. He then spent a month on an under-construction wind farm for on-the-job training.
“Military veterans are a very marketable recruiting pool for a new company whose people must work in a demanding environment,” said Betz. “They are used to working in remote locations with little support. Their ability to solve problems was honed through multiple combat deployments.”
Another example is Vance E. Nixon, an installation manager in the project management operations unit at Clipper. He had 10 years of active duty, serving as an infantry lieutenant and Special Forces captain. This included three Iraq tours for which he won three Bronze Stars.
“When considering my career transition I was looking for a dynamic environment that contributed to the greater good of society,” said Nixon.
He joined Clipper in August 2008. He manages the assignments and professional development of 22 traveling technicians, as well as the scope of installation services provided to customers. He said his leadership experience gained in the military allowed him to step in and make a positive impact immediately.
Maurer said that the adaptability and willingness to tackle anything demonstrated by people like Nixon and Betz is a manager’s dream. Clipper is taking such individuals, placing them in supervisory positions and then cross-training them to broaden their career paths. The idea is to enable the best to rise up and for others to move rapidly across the company as the need arises or as the market changes.
Nixon, for instance, has received training from the Associated General Contractor (AGC) curriculum, on Six Sigma quality practices and the Training Within Industry (TWI) Service. Recently, he also started a Masters in Business Administration course at the University of Denver to improve his business acumen.
“This additional training has allowed me to adapt my military experience to the project management field,” said Nixon.
A major bonus, from Maurer’s perspective was the gold mine uncovered in terms of ex-military personnel with engineering degrees and experience with disciplines such as nuclear propulsion systems, aviation electronics, weapon systems and radar systems. He also discovered that veterans transitioned quickly from their prior roles to wind technicians.
“It took about three months for us to train former military to a point of competence in the wind industry compared to 6 to 12 months for other workers,” said Maurer.
One example is Paul Haberlein (right, as a navigator and engineer aboard destroyers and above, right, on the job at Clipper), director of SCADA engineering at Clipper. A 2003 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he served as a navigator and engineer aboard destroyers. His interest in the power industry began at college when he took an Energy Economics class. He bumped into someone from Clipper at a UCLA conference a few years later and that led to his current position.
“My navy experience involved managing people that are experts in their jobs,” said Haberlein. “As a military officer, you become an expert at making decisions with little information and relying on those that work for you to pick and choose the data that will enable you to make the best decision possible.
Such abilities,” Haberlein said, “have proven invaluable in the renewable sector.