A gust of new jobs
Region ramps up to train offshore wind workers
Twenty-seven miles as the seagull flies off the coast of Virginia Beach, two wind turbines, each about 600 feet tall — taller than the Washington Monument — have the ability to generate 12 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3,000 homes.
In three years, 174 more wind turbines will join them with more than 200 times the power of the first two windmills, enough to power 660,000 homes. They will also be taller than the first two pilot wind turbines, rising 800 feet out of the water.
The 2.6-gigawatt, $9.8 billion offshore wind farm from Richmond-based utility Dominion Energy Inc. is anticipated to support 1,100 direct and indirect full-time jobs across the region, paying $82 million annually in salaries and benefits, according to a 2020 economic impact study commissioned by the Hampton Roads Alliance. Construction is expected to create 900 direct and indirect jobs statewide, paying $57 million in salaries and benefits. And the study says the project could trigger even greater downstream economic growth as new businesses locate in the region to be part of the offshore wind energy supply chain.
To see how Hampton Roads is preparing for this, you have to sweep 50 miles west of the turbines, to Tidewater Community College’s Portsmouth campus, where the school’s 20,000-square-foot Skilled Trades Academy is adding 13,000 more square feet of space.
“We’ve got to get our facilities ready for … this new demand,” says Tamara Williams, TCC’s vice president of workforce solutions. “We are ramping up all of the skilled trades that can support the offshore wind onshore.”
In 2021, TCC added 20 welding booths and other maritime training equipment to the academy. Now, it’s adding more room for HVAC and electrical training. Construction is starting this spring, and new classes will begin in August.
TCC’s expansion is part of a larger effort by businesses, government officials, economic development groups and educators to prepare for an expected increase in demand for an array of skilled and unskilled workers. Dominion estimates a boost in everything from engineering specialists to carpenters, HVAC technicians and tug operators beginning this year and lasting through 2026. Some of these new offshore wind industry jobs will require specialized training. Wind turbine technicians, for example, will need courses from schools certified by the Copenhagen-based Global Wind Organisation (GWO). The courses teach safety measures when working at extreme heights and educate prospective CVOW workers on fire safety and sea survival.
Jeremy Slayton, spokesperson for Dominion, says in an email that the region has the ingredients to make offshore wind a sizeable industry.
“Hampton Roads is well suited to be a supply chain hub for offshore wind projects along the East Coast,” Slayton says. “The region has the first-in-class Port of Virginia, which is ideal to support offshore wind. The port has no overhead restrictions, deepwater channels and an experienced maritime workforce.”
Shawn Avery, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, says the region has time to train this growing workforce while those two turbines are chugging along in the surf, waiting to be joined by the others.
Already economic activity is percolating because of the project. In June 2022, Viking Life-Saving Equipment, a Danish company that builds safety gear, opened an office in Norfolk. Also in 2022, Seajacks UK Limited, a British company that operates “jack-up vessels” that can lift themselves above sea level to install and maintain offshore platforms, opened an office in Virginia Beach’s Town Center. Finally, the Port of Virginia picked Skanska USA, an American subsidiary of a Swedish company, to perform a $223 million redevelopment of 72 acres of the Portsmouth Marine Terminal as a staging area for components of the wind turbines.
Many of the new jobs being created for the offshore wind industry will be familiar to Hampton Roads. Kosal Sarou, who oversees hiring of skilled workers for Skanska’s Portsmouth Marine Terminal redevelopment, ticks off the kinds of workers needed for the project: carpenters, concrete finishers and crane operators.
However, some of the new positions will need workers with training not widely available in Hampton Roads. Right now, GWO-certified courses for technicians and other workers who build and maintain the turbines are scarce in the region. Currently, the only training provider is ENSA North America in Norfolk, which offers four classes, ranging from a basic climbing course for a worker who might have to climb a turbine occasionally to an expanded wind-turbine skills class that includes rescue and first aid instruction. TCC plans to provide GWO training starting in January 2024, Williams says.
The big challenge, Avery says, is to grow a workforce with a mix of skills so Hampton Roads can meet the surge in hiring and “we are not stealing from one industry to … fill the other.”