An Economic Tailwind
New Mexico Program Builds Power and Jobs
Posted: 25-June-2010; Updated: 25-June-2010
No one knows from where the wind comes or where it goes, but folks in eastern New Mexico know when it blows.
"You can always tell it's springtime in New Mexico by the flying cinder blocks," said Lane Bradley, a lifelong resident of Tucumcari, about 70 miles east of Albuquerque.
People in this small town know which way the wind is blowing these days. It's creating a mighty economic tailwind, turning whooshing windmills into jobs. In a stroke of strategic foresight, Mesalands Community College leaders created the North American Wind Research and Training Center, positioning their small campus as one of the nation's few schools to prepare students for jobs as wind energy technicians.
Small town sees jobs on the rise
For students like Bradley, the program is a godsend. His ancestors homesteaded in Tucumcari in the 1880s. He's scratched out a living here as a rodeo rider, rancher and construction worker. He says becoming a wind technician is a way to stay close to his roots while pioneering the future of the green economy.
"This is the wave of the future. I want to get in on the ground floor. This is an environmental issue, but it's also a good employment opportunity," Bradley said.
Tracy Rascoe, director of the center from 2008-2009, says new jobs in wind energy will help young people find work in rural towns instead of moving to cities. He said General Electric could provide jobs for many of the graduates for the next three years, but that's just one employment option the students will have.
Wind energy technicians can expect to earn $45,000 to $60,000 annually—substantially more than the median income in this part of New Mexico. Rascoe said that in a small town like Tucumcari, that's a good deal compared to working in fast food restaurants, ranches and retail stores.
"Finding a job for these students is not going to be a problem. The problem will be deciding where they want to work. There's not much employment in Tucumcari, but there's lots of wind farms," Rascoe said.
Windsmiths of the West
In a sign of how the program is reshaping the community, a 400-foot tall windmill producing 1.5 megawatts of power dominates the campus and the town. Students use it as a hands-on classroom to study safety, electricity generation and blade maintenance. In May 2010, 23 students graduated from the two-year program, during which time they pursued courses in electrical theory, introduction to hydraulics and wind turbine operation and maintenance. According to Troy Carpenter, an instructor at the Research and Training Center, many of these recent graduates have already secured jobs as technicians, commissioners and project managers.
Wind energy is one of the fastest growing businesses in the West and demand for "windsmiths," as the technicians are called, is growing. Some 17 wind farms generating 1,722 megawatts of power are operating or planned within 250 miles of the Mesalands campus. The American Wind Energy Association estimates wind energy will generate 170,000 jobs in the United States by 2030.
In a town with 5,000 residents, four stoplights and more cows than people, Tucumcari needs jobs, said Mesalands Community College President Phillip O. Barry.
"The town's people see it as a form of economic development for rural America and a way to help us become less dependent on foreign energy. We have a tremendous resource here that hasn't been tapped, and that's the wind," Barry said.
A bipartisan clean energy future
The Research and Training Center represents a convergence of bipartisan political support with environmental goals. New Mexico officials are counting on renewable energy to give an economic jolt to small, rural towns eager for jobs.
"Typically, renewable energy generates excitement in the Legislature. This project could help raise New Mexico's status as a leader in clean energy development," said New Mexico state Rep. Brian K. Moore (R-Clayton).
David Griscom of the Santa Fe-based Regional Development Corp., a non-profit economic development organization, can see the direct and immediate benefits of the wind training center. "This green economy business is not hype at all. It's happening here today and it's happening now," Griscom said.