Ten years ago and some change, Aryah Ybarra saw his first wind turbine, and was fascinated.
“I was like, what do I have to do, you know, to get involved with that?” he told Cowboy State Daily.
It took him a little while to figure that out.
“Wind wasn’t very popular then,” Ybarra said. “But it’s just kept getting bigger and bigger, and they’ve been popping up in more and more places. So it became like, you know, more of an opportunity.”
And how. Wind electricity generation has increased from about 10.35 kilowatt-hours in 2002 to 434.81 billion kilowatt-hours in 2022, according to the most recent data from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Job growth, meanwhile, has been mirroring that meteoric growth, and salaries reflect both that demand and the above-average skillsets the industry requires.
Wind techs out of the gate can make about $60,000 annually, according to LCCC Wind Energy Technology Program instructor Steve Hrkach.
Add three years of experience to that, and the salary jumps significantly to $75,000 annually.
Wind techs who want to travel, meanwhile, can do even better with per diems of up to $250 a day for living expenses. That’s a nontaxable sum, Hrkach added, paid on top of their salary. That makes turbine technician a six-figure salary, readily achievable even at entry levels.
“I’m just getting ready to graduate a class in May and everybody that was looking for a job got one,” Hrkach said.
The Total Package
It’s a job that’s not only in demand, it requires more than average skills and physical ability.
“It requires both brains and brawn,” Hrkach told Cowboy State Daily. “You can’t have one and not the other.”
It also doesn’t hurt if a person likes sky diving, Ybarra suggested.
“You can’t be afraid of heights,” he said. “And I want to say it’s not difficult, but you do need to be in some kind of physical shape to do it, you know? The guy that’s been sitting on the couch all day and then wants to go climb a tower is probably not going to make it to the top.”
Towers are generally around 200 feet, and sometimes higher. There are sections, though, classmate Isaac Thomas added.
“If you really wanted to, I guess you could step off and take a break,” he said.
But too many breaks would eat into the time available to finish the work, and that 200-foot-plus climb is not even the most difficult part of the job.
“It’s working above your head with power tools,” Thomas said. “They’re heavy. You need to have good leg strength and your shoulders are going to get really strong.”
It’s also pretty “gritty” work, Ybarra and Thomas say.
“Especially if you’re not wearing gloves,” Ybarra said.
“Gloves are a must,” Thomas agreed. “But most of the sweat and grit comes from working above your head with torque wrenches and hydraulic tools and stuff like that.”
Still, that first time climbing to the top of a tower?
“I enjoyed it,” Ybarra said. “You know, I’m not afraid of heights. I like sky diving, so it was very exciting the first time I got to do it. I don’t have a problem doing it continuously.”
LCCC A Program Worth Moving For
Ybarra heard an advertisement about the wind energy program offered by Laramie County Community College and, after checking it out, was so excited he moved to Cheyenne from Laramie to take the hands-on class on that campus of LCCC.
Thomas, meanwhile, came to Cheyenne from a little bit further away — a small town in Pennsylvania. He toured programs around the country before settling on the one at LCCC.
“Basically, I just wanted a blue-collar job that was unique in its own way, something that was kind of different from all the other ones,” he said. “And I saw Cheyenne looked like a nice place to live for a college student, so I made the decision to come here.”
Among the things Ybarra and Thomas are working on now is a capstone project where they design and draw an electrical schematic for something like what they’d see in the field, and then build that into their working cabinets.
“This is kind of the fun part of the class, where these guys actually can do their own thing,” Hrkach said. “They build their own cabinet and then, later on, I’ll put some faults in there and they’ll have to troubleshoot. So it’s both frustrating and, I would say, satisfying, because you have to find a fault and fix it. That’s what they’re going to be doing on the field is a lot of troubleshooting, a lot of finding faults and fixing them.”
Prior to this semester of work, the turbine tech students did a similar exercise focused on the more mechanical aspects of the job.
“This semester, it’s really just electrical,” Hrkach said.
Not Just Wind
Ybarra and Thomas both say the class has more than delivered on all their expectations, and they are feeling confident about their skills as they near the end of the program.
“The program is not just wind,” Ybarra said. “It’s a mechanical thing. You could go into electricity, solar, wind, oil — many routes. You don’t just have to do wind.”
At some point, Ybarra hopes that the jobs trail will lead him back to his home state in Kansas, where he still has family.
“Wind is pretty much big everywhere,” he said, and he feels the program has given him a good shot at making that dream happen at some point, even if it doesn’t happen to be in wind initially.
Thomas, meanwhile, has his eye on a site in Arizona that he particularly likes.
“They have to hire the site manager before they can hire people below him, so that looks very promising right now,” he said. “I’m just waiting for them to get a site manager hired.”
Thomas also interviewed recently for a position in California in the Bay Area, which he was offered, though he ultimately had to turn that down.
“The cost of living was so high for what I would be doing,” he said. “They made it sound like a really good offer, and it would have been a great offer anywhere else.”
Thomas knows he doesn’t want to climb for the bulk of his career.
“I’d like to climb for, I don’t know, until it feels right,” he said. “And then I’d like to get into the business management side of it. I don’t see myself wanting to climb when I’m older.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com