Editor's note: This is part of a regular series about the courses being taught at Nebraska's colleges and universities, as well as the instructors and students involved in them.
NORFOLK -- Mastering the inner-workings of a nacelle, which houses the gearbox, brakes and generator that makes a wind turbine a wind turbine, will come in time and practice.
First, students in Northeast Community College's wind energy program must master gravity.
Dressed in hard hats and harnesses, the dozen or so future wind turbine technicians practice rappelling off the side of a decommissioned nacelle donated to the college program from NextEra Energy.
Unlike the 71 turbines of the Sholes Wind Farm about 30 miles north of the Norfolk campus, Northeast's newest wind energy lab puts the students about 10 feet off the ground.
To those without experience in a controlled vertical descent, however, mastering the technique can be challenging. Boots slip on the nacelle casing, and students roll and pitch on their first tries.
"It's all about setting your weight back and trusting your equipment," said Alex Junck, of Sioux City, Iowa. "You also have to bend your knees a little. A lot of people stand up too tall and put their weight on their toes."
By the second attempt, which requires them to crawl under the nacelle and into a hatch before shimmying around the generator and control system and then emerging on the top of the machine, most of the students have gotten the hang of it.
John Liewer said the lessons on rappelling off the nacelle, which was taken out of service from a wind farm in Minnesota, have taken the place of rappelling from the mezzanine level of the campus building where classes are held.
The practical skills lab, WIND 1085, is offered alongside the Wind Energy Fundamentals class, WIND 1080, an introductory course to the industry, how wind energy is generated and the economic, environmental and political issues.
"One of the things we train on is climbing safety," said Liewer, an instructor. "They'll go through the semester learning how to rescue each other and rescue themselves.
"Once they go out for their internships, they'll refresh on a lot of this stuff," he added. "But this lets us get them up on a tower to start working right away."
Nate Simpson, who teaches some more advanced courses in the wind energy program, said the newly obtained nacelle gives the students experience in and around the equipment without needing to be 250 or 300 feet off the ground.
"It takes some of the hindrance of height out of the equation, and lets us get in and discuss what's going on inside the turbine without the danger," Simpson said.
After mastering terminology and nomenclature, as well as safety techniques, Northeast runs its wind energy students through more in-depth courses about motor controls and mechanical systems.
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Students can leave Northeast after a year to pursue an internship and a job with a wind energy company, Liewer said, or they can complete the two-year program and receive their degree, an associate of applied science.
"If they leave after their freshman year, it's because they've already got a job," said Liewer, who has taught wind energy courses at Northeast for seven years after working as an electrical service technician for 15 years. "The demand has been really high lately."
The number of wind energy jobs in the U.S. is expected to rise over the next decade, along with the amount of electricity generated through wind. Just this week, the Energy Information Administration projected electrical generation from wind power would increase 6% this year and 14% in 2020.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of technicians to perform maintenance on wind farms throughout the U.S. is expected to increase from 6,600 to 10,400 -- a 57% increase between 2018 and 2028.
Meanwhile, the median pay for technicians is over $54,000, which is even more lucrative when you consider that most jobs in the field do not require taking on the debt of a four-year college degree.
Statewide, demand for wind turbine technicians -- a job designated as an “H3,” or high-skill, high-wage and high-demand -- is expected to increase by 90% between 2016 and 2026.
The total number of job openings for tower-climbing technicians in 2026 is 229, according to the Nebraska Department of Labor.
Rosy outlooks for a job is the biggest driver for the students in Liewer’s class of about a dozen students.
Bill Arkfeld said he started considering the wind industry during a career fair his Battle Creek school attended in eighth grade.
“I didn’t get put into the job I wanted, and was put into wind instead,” Arkfeld said. “I kind of found it by accident.”
His talks with the technicians that day opened his eyes to the opportunities in the growing field. More discussions about the field gave him a glimpse into the pay and benefits, which led him to Northeast Community College.
Simpson said as more students see the trucks carrying turbine blades drive through their towns or watch as new generation facilities come online, they see opportunity -- particularly those who don't mind working hundreds of feet in the air.
"They are kind of the thrill-seekers," he said.
Junck, who seeks adventure through rock climbing, skydiving and paragliding, said troubleshooting a wind turbine while connected to a rope is an exciting prospect.
But more exciting, he said, is the availability of jobs and the money to be made.
"Once I graduate, I'll be able to get a job almost instantly."