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Technical training the key to keeping wind turbine blades turning

By Andy Ginger

Technical education will continue to play a critical role in ensuring the next generation of technicians is fully trained and ready to meet the demands of the wind power and other alternative energy industries.

Although the wind power industry is still in its relative infancy here in the U.S., some technical schools and community colleges are starting to implement wind power-specific education for students to learn about turbine design and control systems. To support this, the wind power industry must address some specific challenges when it comes to tools and tool management…and that's where suppliers fit into the equation.

Snap-on has invested heavily in technical education to develop product-specific user certifications for tools, equipment, and asset management in a number of industries, including wind power. Snap-on offers technical schools and colleges eight fully-developed tool training modules that teach technicians the proper and best way to use tools and equipment in specific disciplines to become more productive in their jobs.

To help facilitate these certifications, we've partnered with the National Coalition of Certification Centers (NC3), a network of education providers and corporations that support advances and validate new and emerging technology skills in a number of industries. Today, we are partnering with more than 70 technical schools and community colleges across the country in offering our certifications.

The key to grooming the technicians of tomorrow starts with training. Today's machinery and equipment are more complex than ever before. Technicians need to possess a high level of training and become well rounded in their overall skill sets. The role technical schools serve in training and preparing young people to step into manufacturing and industrial jobs is paramount. But how do we encourage young people to consider a skilled trades career?

I think we need to start by inspiring students. In only two years, a young man or woman can receive a technical degree and start working in a meaningful job that offers career advancement—and make a decent living doing so. There's a bright future for the wind and solar power industries, both of which are growing at double-digit rates. That's a good story that needs to be better told in high schools across the country.

However, I think part of the problem is that skilled and technical labor has an image problem with young people today. Many probably think a career in skilled trades involves a job working in noisy, dirty surroundings that garners little respect and attention. Those stereotypes are hampering the recruiting efforts of young people into the skilled trades—and could hamper the growth of the wind power industry.

The reality today is that many high school students think of a traditional four-year college as a first option; a career in a skilled labor field isn't the first thing that comes to mind with most of them—or their parents. Skilled labor shouldn't be viewed as a second place option or consolation career path. What students need to know is that gaining skills and working in the wind and alternative energy industries is a career that's highly automated and takes a great deal of training and knowledge. What students need to know is that a technical degree can often provide a much quicker path to employment, is often less expensive than a bachelor's degree, and comes with reasonable assurance that a job will likely be waiting for them following course completion—and that job may be building or maintaining massive wind turbines.

The role we're playing in technical education is providing conformity and an across-the-board standard for the partnering technical schools to present in-depth instruction on tool use, as well as theory and application. The certifications are not an add-on, but rather are integrated into the existing courses offered by the partnering schools. Upon completion of these courses, technicians become certified in that specific course discipline—helping to make them more productive and well-rounded professionals.

For the wind power industry, the two most applicable certification courses are torque and asset management. A thorough understanding of torque is extremely important in the wind power industry as wind turbines have more than 600 fasteners—all of which require proper torque. Torque certification dives deep into how to identify bolt grades, metal grades, hardness, thread pitch, lubrication, and applying the associated science. It also includes theory, such as application, hands-on training, safety, and calibration equations.

Technicians who complete asset management certification will have an understanding of general asset management principles, which consists of tool control theories and FOD/FME (Foreign Object Damage, Foreign Material Exclusion) principles and prevention. The last thing a technician wants to do is climb a wind turbine tower a second time to retrieve a forgotten tool. Asset management certification provides practical advice and recommendations to manage tools, both at the crib and in the tower.

Training will forever be a cornerstone in keeping technicians abreast of the latest skills and trends facing the alternative energy industries. We see our part as one of empowering the technicians of tomorrow to help them achieve their dreams by giving them the best tools to succeed—and the way to do that is through our partnership with technical schools. This is our contribution to making domestic skilled labor the most qualified in the world and making the U.S. a leader in wind and solar power. Together, I'm confident we'll see our joint efforts make a positive impact.

Andy Ginger is president of Snap-on Industrial. He can be reached at 262-656-5815; [email protected]

July/August 2013