Virginia’s wind energy training program picks up speed
Dante Billington-McCoy wanted to be ready to launch a new career when he leaves the Army next fall.
So, he made a call to Tidewater Tech to get information about their automotive technician program. Or he intended to. Instead, the 24-year-old Hampton Roads resident got Virginia Beach-based private, for-profit Centura College on the line, thanks to a recent affiliation change. “It was by accident,” he says, “but I wouldn’t change it.”
A Centura admissions representative told Billington-McCoy about the school’s new yearlong wind turbine technician program. “I ended up liking what they were offering,” he says.
One of six students in the program’s inaugural class, Billington-McCoy began his coursework in February. He attends school in the evening after putting in a day of work as a logistics noncommissioned officer for the Army.
In the yearlong wind turbine technician program, students are taught the technical skills needed to install, maintain and repair wind turbines.
In March, Billington-McCoy was neck-deep in studies centering on electricity. “I’ve never done anything electrical, so that’s all foreign to me,” he says, “but I’m getting pretty good.”
Launching a new program
Michael Lanouette, vice president of administration at Centura College, kept hearing about the great need for trained wind turbine technicians. While bigger colleges formed committees to study the demand, Lanouette says, Centura decided to go for it.
“We took it serious,” he says. “We went through the accreditation process. We got the equipment. We got the instructors.”
Specializing in health sciences and skilled trades, Centura has four locations in Hampton Roads, including what formerly was known as Tidewater Tech, and is the parent institution for the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, which has 13 aviation technician training centers nationwide.
For the wind turbine technician program, Centura is collaborating with the Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy, a private vocational center in Norfolk that offers Coast Guard-approved courses geared toward the maritime industry, to get students ready to work in the middle of the sea if they decide to go the offshore wind route.
“The two organizations had two areas of expertise that we combined to put together a very vibrant and effective program,” says Capt. Ed Nanartowich, the academy’s president.
Through the academy, wind turbine technician students take hands-on courses. The academy’s officials hope the courses will be fully certified this summer by the Global Wind Organisation, a Danish nonprofit that sets international minimum standards for safety and technical training for wind turbine workers.
In March, Nanartowich was figuring out how to raise $125,000 to purchase a mobile training tower, which will allow students to practice working safely at great heights. His first plan to obtain the funding from a stakeholder in the offshore wind industry didn’t pan out.
“We could start teaching the basic safety training part tomorrow if we had the equipment here today,” Nanartowich says. However, in Martinsville, the state-funded New College Institute does have a 25-foot tower for its wind energy program, purchased last year.
In October 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the creation of the Mid-Atlantic Wind Training Alliance, a partnership between Centura, the academy and the New College Institute. In a statement, Northam called the alliance “an important first step” in a larger effort to develop a workforce for the renewable energy industries in Virginia.
NCI, which received its GWO certification this year, offered its first batch of weeklong wind turbine technician classes in January.
“We’re doing great and getting the word out,” says Karen Jackson, NCI’s interim executive director, who previously served as Virginia’s secretary of technology under Gov. Terry McAuliffe. She landed on wind energy as a “game-changing” training program for the school because in 2019 no other institution in Virginia was offering GWO-certified classes.
Employment of wind turbine service
technicians is projected to grow 61% by 2029, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and demand for trained technicians will likely be especially strong in Virginia with Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc. planning to build the largest wind farm in North America off the coast of Virginia Beach.
Billington-McCoy is optimistic he’ll be able to get a job taking care of those turbines. “I’m so excited to climb up the windmills, get the amazing view and do my work,” he says.