Kalamazoo Valley’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy Generates Diversity

Kalamazoo Valley’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy (WTTA) provides students with a fast track to high demand jobs in an exciting field. With the push in this country to generate 20 percent of our energy with wind energy by 2030, the demand for highly trained technicians will only increase as one wind turbine technician is needed for every ten wind turbines. Wind turbine technicians install, inspect, troubleshoot and repair wind turbine components.

Kalamazoo Valley’s WTTA program is the nation’s leading training program for wind turbine technicians. Focused on specific, hands-on competencies, the unique training model moves students from the classroom to the learning labs and into the field quickly.

The non-credit, full-time program allows graduates to be job-ready in less than six months. Students attend class Monday through Friday, eight hours each day for 24 weeks. They also take turns as the on-call technician to accompany a wind instructor to turbines if a problem occurs on a weekend.

Tom Sutton serves as Kalamazoo Valley’s director of wind energy and technical services. He studied aircraft engineering and earned an automotive engineering technologies degree from Western Michigan University. He worked for Harold Zeigler Lincoln/Mercury as a senior master technician, and later worked with Ford Field Engineering. He taught at WMU as an adjunct engineering faculty member before coming to Kalamazoo Valley 12 years ago.

In addition to his roles as an administrator and trainer for the WTTA, Sutton is a senior trainer for Wisconsin-based ENSA North America, the nation’s premier work-at-heights training organization. He travels internationally to train other wind energy trainers. He is also on the steering committee for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and is active with the Workforce Development Committee and chair of the Operations and Maintenance subcommittee.

Internationally, Sutton is a member of the International Technical Committee where he works to develop the international training standards for worker safety.

A wide variety of students have enrolled in the WTTA since it first opened in November 2009. Students in the current class include Josh Trudgeon, who is funding his studies with a Kalamazoo Promise scholarship, an Army veteran Zachary Trinkle who is utilizing the GI Bill to pay for tuition, and Niles native Kaitlyn McDonald is the only woman in the current class. She loves the hands-on work and is mechanically inclined.

Trudgeon said it was easy to use the Kalamazoo Promise to cover his tuition. “Going through high school, the process is ingrained in us on how to apply,” he said. “I think the hardest part was I had to email the Promise Program Manager at Kalamazoo Valley, Monteze Morales, and schedule a meeting to talk about what I wanted to do and how to get it done right. From there it was all good. They made it really easy.”

Trudgeon attended Michigan Tech for a year before working in carpentry and as an electrician. He has loved the training so far. He enjoys electrical work and decided that it would be even more exciting atop a wind turbine. “Every day is a new challenge,” he said. “It keeps me engaged and excited.”

Trinkle, from Buffalo, New York, is using the benefits of his G.I. Bill to help pay the $14,000 tuition fee. The process for Trinkle was also very simple, but he still recommends that veterans have all their documentation in order and that they be organized to save time and help prevent mishaps. Trinkle says he chose Valley’s academy over others because it has been around longer than others and has more available certifications. Trinkle is impressed with the academy so far. “I like it a lot. It’s very fast paced. It can seem overwhelming, but they give you plenty of time to catch up. And you’re never really alone. If someone is struggling, then more than likely there is someone who is in the same boat. You can move at your own pace, but still have a certain number of days to get things done.” In addition to his military experience, Trinkle has attended college before. “I’ve learned more here in the past three months than I learned in four and a half years of college,” he said. “The course does a good job of building off of itself.”

Women are also making great strides within the industry. The program encourages hands-on, mechanically inclined women such as McDonald to join them as wind technologies advance. McDonald is due to graduate in December, but has already had two job interviews with companies within the industry and is currently waiting to set up a third interview.

When asked if she was intimidated to enter a field where men are dominate she said, “Yes and no. I grew up with an older brother so I was always around the guys. I’ve always worked in tire shops and took three years of automotive classes in high school so being around the guys is natural for me. But, it does get intimidating because you get those guys who say ‘oh you’re a girl, you can’t do the same as me’.” One of her biggest concerns is being hired based on her skill, not gender.

“I don’t want to be chosen because I’m a woman in a man’s industry. I want to be chosen because I have the skills to do the job they need me to do and I have the work ethic they want,” she said.

Program Coordinator Delia Baker said the academy is ideal for students who are mechanically inclined or have a background in electrical technology. We look for experience that can be verified by a reference,” Baker said. “We need to know that people are good with their hands. The training is fast-paced so students need to be self-directed.” Most students quickly become comfortable working at heights, which is a must since the wind turbines are more than 300 feet tall. A passion for travel also makes the job enticing for many, including Trudgeon. “I’m excited to travel and fix wind turbines and to work with renewable energy – giving energy to people from something that’s free,” he said.

The Wind Turbine Technician Academy runs for six months with the next academy starting January 3, 2019. Classes are small with only 12 students and are held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.