Updated on October 12, 2016
Humanity has been onto wind power—that is, using wind for pumps and mills—for centuries. But in more recent decades, industrial turbines have been built to generate electricity on a much greater scale: Between 2004 and 2009, wind power grew by nearly 40 percent in the U.S. Yet the industry remains niche: Wind power only accounts for 4 percent of the electricity generated in the country. There’s certainly room for growth, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a very optimistic outlook for the technicians who maintain and fix turbines: It is estimated to be the fastest growing profession in the U.S. in the next decade.
Vestas is a Danish wind-turbine manufacturer with over 57,000 wind turbines in 75 countries. The company has over 16,000 turbines and employs 5,100 workers to build, maintain, operate, and repair its turbines in North America. George Myers was a stay-at-home dad in Limon, Colorado, but when his children left for college Myers found a new career in wind power. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I talked to Myers about how he managed that transition, what it’s like working in a booming industry, and what it takes to be a wind turbine technician. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do for work, and how did you get into it?
George Myers: I'm a level-two technician for Vestas, a wind-turbine manufacturer with 16,000 turbines in North America. I work in a wind park in Colorado. We've got 139 turbines. Basically, my job is to maintain them, keep them running, and fix them when they break.
I've been doing this for almost four years now. I got into it because Vestas turbines are about a hundred miles from my house. I was more or less a stay-at-home dad and worked part-time for a large-animal vet in town and did some work on farms and ranches around the area. My youngest daughter graduated high school and went off to college, so it was time to find another job or career, which are limited in a small town. I asked around, and it seemed that most of the jobs that I could do involved state road maintenance.
I was talking to someone I knew in town, and he said, "Why don't you come apply at Vestas?" I said, "Oh God, have mercy. I don't know anything about those turbines." As far as I knew, wind makes them go around and that makes electricity. He said that my background working with hydraulics, farm equipment, and household electrical stuff was really all I needed. I applied online, went through the processes, and couple months later I was working at the wind park.
Lam: What’s a regular day of work like?
Myers: We come in 6 a.m. and have a morning assignment meeting, go over any safety alerts that come up and any issues. Then we break into our teams, you're assigned a truck where there’s a truck lead and the one to three technicians. You're assigned a tower, or a series of towers, to perform tasks, and you come back when you're done. It's definitely a team environment; you have to know and trust your team. That's a big part of it.
Twice a year, every tower has to be visited and we do standard checks, like changing filters, greasing things, checking electronic equipment with the controller, and making sure that all the systems are getting accurate readings. When the turbines are broken, a crew of technicians goes out and the problem could be as simple a temperature sensor that's bad, or more complex if a motor went out. Once we can get them running, then we can return to routine maintenance.
Lam: It's safe to say that you didn't see yourself doing this for work?
Myers: Working here was a chance thing. The park happened to be in driving distance, and I really wanted to stay in a small town. We've been here for 20 years. I didn't want to leave it, but I did need to work.
I was possibly the oldest guy on the site, managers included, which is good and bad, I guess. There’s that old adage that says, “it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” and it has taken me a little longer to figure out some of this technical stuff. But once I got into it and realized how much technology are in these towers, it was amazing. It just overwhelmed me at first. I thought, "Oh my God, there was no way I could figure all this stuff out!” But over time, little bits and pieces at a time, you get it. Now I'm a truck lead and when they get new guys coming on, they put them on my crew to start getting them trained.
Lam: How was the transition from being a stay-at-home dad to a wind-turbine technician?
Myers: I was running a small ranch at the time, but it allowed me time with the kids. It was a lot different because I was working for myself and now I work for a really large company. I had done it before; I was a cop in California and I worked for Southern Pacific Railroad. It took a while to get used to the change. Of course, while I was running the ranch, the way companies run had changed, especially the safety aspect. It was kind of unusual starting a new job and being the oldest guy there. When I got my job as a cop I was one of the youngest, and that goes for my other jobs as well.
Vestas took me in, and my colleagues nicknamed me grandpa. Shortly after I started there, my second granddaughter was born so of course I had the pictures to show. The job was a lot more physically demanding than I thought it would be, and I never considered that in the beginning. The major component replacements—once in awhile, lightning will hit a tower and strike a blade we've got to replace the blade, or generators go out and we have to replace those things with gearboxes—are physically demanding.
Lam: Is your work dangerous in any way?
Myers: It could be, if you don't pay attention to all the safety things that are in place. The scariest thing I found myself doing is replacing a blade. You have to go on the outside, lie down on the gel-coated nose cone, and balance your feet on that rounded blade to hook equipment up to pull it off. I'm tied two or three different ways, of course, so if I did slip it's not going to kill me or hurt me. The unnerving part is worrying that these three things are hooked up and they all work. The turbines are sometimes taller than the Statue of Liberty.
One of the things I do now is I “climb test” potential employees. They have to be able to climb the ladder to the top of the tower, and go out on the roof. In our park, that’s just shy of 300 feet, basically a football field standing up.
Lam: How long does that, the climb test, take?
Myers: There was a young kid here just a couple months ago that got to the top in about three minutes. But he was a collegiate wrestler. It usually takes five to seven minutes on a nice even pace, but I've had some people get ready to get on the roof and just have to take a minute to get their nerves together to get up there. They've got a harness on them, of course, but that's part of the test. They have to demonstrate that they can do that.
In an emergency situation, you have to be able to climb up the ladder that high and not be scared or distracted. Part of the safety program is that you never go up a tower by yourself so that if something happens to you up there there is someone who can rescue.
If you get somebody that just goes through the interview, background, and physical process, you get to the tower and you find out they're scared of heights and they can't go on the roof, [that’s a problem].
Lam: What are some of the challenges the wind energy industry is facing? Do you experience these challenges in your work?
Myers: I think a lot of challenges in the wind industry is keeping up with the demand, not only to build more turbines but to keep the turbines that you have up running. The industry is growing faster and faster; wind turbines are going up all over the place. We have 139 here, and between here and Kansas there's probably another 700 turbines.
Lam: Is that likely part of the reason that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the profession of wind turbine technician as the fastest growing in the next decade?
Myers: I can really see that. It takes a lot more technicians to get a park up and running. Once it gets through its first year, then the number of techs per tower comes down. But yes, the industry is growing and we've been hiring steadily at our site since I started.
After I got here, my manager said that one of the reasons that he hired me was because he wanted to hire people from the local area. He was having really high turnover of young technicians; they go to a wind school and apply for jobs all over the country. They take the best job for the first job, then after a year or two they might transfer or move to a new wind park closer to home or where they really want to be. That's a big challenge for my manager, because there are so many more parks and towers going up all over the country.
Lam: How does it feel for you as someone who fell into this job, but now you're part of this booming industry right at home?
Myers: It's kind of exciting. Things are advancing so fast in technology that I can't even count the number of technical upgrades to the towers that we've already built in terms of changing software, electrical components, making the blades more efficient and capture more wind. It's just constantly growing and improving.
I really enjoy it because you're not learning just one thing. One of the reasons I didn’t stay with the vet I was working for was because I had been there for 11 years and knew my way around, but unless I became a veterinarian, I wasn't going to advance anymore there. That's what I enjoyed about [being a wind-turbine technician]. It's growing so fast, and changing so much, that there’s always something to learn.
Lam: You've been a wind-turbine technician for two years. Has it changed your perception of work in America?
Myers: I like the fact that there's more green energy going up, and I like wind better than solar just because it fits into my community better. It's a better mix with ranching, they can still do their farming and ranching right underneath the towers. Once I started being involved with other people that work here, one of the things that surprised me was all the advancements that have been made after being out of big business or big industry for 20 years. I used to look up at the turbines and think, "How did anybody ever get up there?" Once you learn how to do it right, it takes the dangerous part out of it. If you follow the safety rules, it's a pretty safe job.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a civil engineer, a cartographer, and a lobster fisherman.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
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