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Iowa Lakes Community College tries to meet demand of expanding wind energy industry


When you turn on a light in Iowa, there's a three-in-ten chance that the electricity powering the bulb came from a wind turbine. The American Wind Energy Association says, in 2016, Iowa's 3,965 wind turbines provided 36.5 percent of all in-state electricity production.

In South Dakota, it's a little less. 30.3 percent of all in-state electricity production in 2016.

And, in Nebraska, in 2016, wind turbines generated about 10-percent of the state's electricity.

Those turbines, and the turbines that are being planned, or built, need to be tended by trained workers. Some of the most qualified come from Iowa. "We go to the number one program in the United States for wind energy," said Avery Nelson, Iowa Lakes Community College Sophomore. Nelson came to Iowa Lakes, from Onawa, Iowa, to wrestle. "I came to wrestle, but I got a career," said Nelson. When he graduates, Nelson will climb to new heights as a wind energy and turbine technician.

"Right now, everyone is looking for someone to work for them," said Wyatt Harris, Iowa Lakes Community College Sophomore. Those job opportunities led Harris to switch majors-- from electrical engineering to wind energy, and schools-- from Iowa State to Iowa Lakes, shortly before his freshman year. "I didn't see that working out for me, so I'd rather go to a two-year and make just as much money being implemented and working with my hands like I like to doing," said Harris.

Engineering Technology Program Coordinator Chad Tischer graduated from Iowa Lakes 20-years ago, and has watched wind energy grow from a pipedream to a predictable source of energy. He's also watched the Iowa Lakes program prosper. "I'd say it's the best," said Tischer.

Program coordinators say graduates of the Iowa Lakes program can write their own ticket. That's because wind turbine technician is the fastest-growing occupation in country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The dilemma our students have is they have to decide what offer they're going to take," said Dan Lutat, Iowa Lakes Community College Director for Sustainable Energy Resources and Technologies. Lutat says the exponential growth in the wind energy industry gets the credit for higher salaries. "$50,000 to $90,000 walking out the door with a two-year degree has been a long-time coming in the United States," said Lutat. It also gets credit for the glut of good jobs for graduates. "Our national goal-- of 20-percent of our national energy from wind energy-- is a 2030 goal," said Lutat. "So, in the next 13-years, we have to add another 250,000 jobs to this job field."

Iowa Lakes graduates don't have to go far to find a job. Windtest North-America, which builds systems that measure all aspects of wind turbines, is in the same building on campus. "Across the hall their learning everything from the wind technician program to the automation," said Jacob Wittkamp, Windtest North-America Inc. Technician. "We're building a lot of electronics, so it's a great fit."

Back in the lab sophomore Ben Erdmann prepares for a promised job in Minnesota after graduation. "I wanted to get into a job that was in need," said Erdmann. "I wanted to make sure that I had a job when I got out."

Iowa's wind energy industry has come a long way in such a short amount of time. In 2005, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack signed a key state law to provide the first tax credits for renewable energy production. That same year, the state's first wind turbine manufacturer opened in Cedar Rapids.

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