When Mendota resident Nick Schaefer made the decision to go back to school after working in the hospitality industry and then as a nurse, it was not a decision to make lightly.
He is married with children, and it meant leaving his nursing job, working nights at a hotel desk and going back to school for two semesters.
He decided to sign up for the wind turbine technician – windtech – program at Illinois Valley Community College. But as the spring semester wound down, and students began signing up for fall courses, Schaefer learned that only two people had signed up for the program, and he was one of them.
Which was far less than the number necessary to run the course, he said a guidance counselor told him.
“She said if there’s not a minimum of eight, then they probably won’t run the program,” Schaeffer said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that wind turbine technician is supposed the be the hottest job right now, with big earnings projects and big growth. Indeed, IVCC students in the program are often working before they finish.
So why isn’t the windtech program at IVCC bursting with students?
“It’s an irony,” said program coordinator Jim Gibson.
While nationwide the jobs are expected to grow, windtech jobs in the Illinois Valley might be harder to come by, Gibson said, and that could be impacting enrollment.
“Most people who go here want to work in the area,” he said.
There are several wind farms in the area, and in March the La Salle County Zoning Board approved construction of another one east of Streator. But Gibson said there is little stability in ownership of the wind farms.
“I don’t think any of them have had the same owner for 15 years,” he said. And when a new owner comes in, it could bring its own windtechs or have some other arrangement.
That’s not to say people who go through the program don’t find jobs.
“Graduates who have gone through have done really well,” Gibson said.
States like Texas, Iowa and Minnesota are expected to double the number of windtech jobs by 2024. Some technician jobs also involve traveling, going to from wind farm to wind farm.
Even though there are fewer of them, there are windtech jobs in Illinois. Eric Fitzpatrick of Peru finished the program in 2013 and works at a NextEra windfarm near Bloomington, a job he got while still enrolled in the program.
“I was leaving work and going to school,” he said.
He went back to school because his life was changing he was in a committed relationship and had a baby coming.
“I needed more money,” he said.
According to the BLS, average pay for a windtech is about $52,000 per year.
Fitzpatrick said he spends a couple hours a day up in the air, but much of his day is spent planning or troubleshooting from the ground.
Gibson said the program will run in the fall but might look different. The windtech program shares most of its courses with the Associate’s in Electronics program, with just a few courses specific to wind turbine technicians. While the details of how it would happen aren’t yet set, Gibson said the wind technician certification would likely get rolled in with the electronics program, meaning those students who earn an electronics degree would also receive a wind turbine technician certification.
So while the program may look different, it will run next year, Gibson said.
The program is very hands on, Gibson said. He said the equipment in the classroom is the same equipment students would use in the field, and some of the electronics they assemble end up being used in industry, he said.
And each year, one of the classes assembles the electronics used in the Edible Car Contest.
Kevin Solari can be reached at (815) 220-6931 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_County.