Careers: Finding a Job in the Green Economy

Loma Roggenkamp was looking for a new career. Saddled with a huge student-loan debt and an underpaying job in graphic design, the 29-year-old Pennsylvanian was forced to move home with her parents to make ends meet. Then she heard about Iowa Lakes Community College's Wind Energy & Turbine Technology program, which trains students in wind-turbine operations. With a bachelor's degree in science, an interest in the environment and an eye on the slumping economy, changing gears was a no-brainer. "This is one sector that's really growing," says Roggenkamp. "That was a big draw—that there's jobs, and it's projected there will still be jobs."

The demand for skilled workers in the rapidly growing wind-energy industry has spurred the creation of more than a dozen wind-technology programs across the country. Iowa Lakes started its program—one of the first in the country—in 2004 with 15 students. This coming fall, 102 are enrolled. George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, says he doesn't know the exact number of wind-energy programs that are currently being created, but "from what I'm hearing in the field, these programs are developing rapidly." Most programs result in two-year associate's degrees, which generally cost no more than $10,000—not bad considering that the starting salary for a wind technician runs between $20 and $25 an hour, and a job is virtually guaranteed. But it's not just community colleges that are meeting the demand for skilled technicians. Companies like GE are training 1,600 new hires in turbine technology "every year for the foreseeable future," according to Bob Ward of GE Sensing & Inspection Technologies, a division that develops technologies to help maintain the company's network of 10,000 turbines around the world.

"We're building a brand-new industry from the bottom up," says Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. "It's like building an auto industry. There are new long-term jobs being created, and they're being created pretty fast."

The passage of the stimulus bill, which allocates about $50 billion for clean energy, brings even more hope to the industry. Like every other sector, renewable energy has felt the effects of the recession. "We were dead in the water at the beginning of this year like everybody else," says Bode. Financing was limited because of the shaky market, and turbines sat in manufacturing facilities waiting to be placed on wind farms. But, as Bode explains, many projects had already started, "and you don't stop on a dime if you're building a new facility." The new infusion of money, in the form of tax credits and grants, ensures that that momentum continues.

Some companies are already taking into account the impact of the new cash. Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, which operates wind farms in eight states, plans to double its capacity in the next three years thanks to the stimulus bill, says chief operating officer Gabriel Alonso, and it announced in February that it will be opening a new 200-megawatt plant in Indiana.

So how many jobs exactly will come out of the green energy sector? No one can say for sure, but in an industry whose massive infrastructure is merely in the beginning stages of development, the potential is huge. Monique Hanis, a spokesperson for the Solar Energy Industries Association, estimates that 110,000 jobs will be created in solar energy by the end of next year. And Bode estimates that if the industry meets President Obama's goal of doubling renewable energy output in the next three years, an objective he reiterated in his economic speech on Tuesday, the wind sector will create 185,000 jobs in that time period. Many of those jobs will be in areas that were hit hardest by the recession, like manufacturing and construction, meaning that jobs in the green sector could replace those that were lost in blue-collar industries.

That is surely promising news to the country's rising number of unemployed. And it is certainly good news to Loma Roggenkamp, who is now in her first year of training at Iowa Lakes. "I'm quite happy [coming] into this program and this industry," she says. "Every day I think, yeah, I finally made a good decision."