KS clean energy workforce grows with investment, education


While most businesses shed workers in the pandemic, Wichita-based Alltite doubled its workforce by focusing on a clean energy job: a wind turbine technician.

Alltite handles calibration and bolting services for heavy equipment. It has traditionally worked with customers in the oil and gas industry, but pivoted last May when a customer asked the company if it could service wind turbines across the country — from California to Rhode Island — with its Kansas employees.

“We have such a great opportunity here to really embrace what’s next,” said Anne Smith, vice president of opportunity for Alltite. “It’s not just about trends that are going on, but actually committing to a new industry.”

Early last year, Alltite employed 43 people. It now employs 94, with about 50 of those workers traveling the U.S. to service wind turbines.

Kansas is well-positioned to grow its workforce in the renewable energy sector, with naturally abundant wind and sun. If the state wants to keep that advantage as the industry grows, it needs to be prepared to develop other sectors of clean energy, such as solar, battery storage and manufacturing, experts say.

Wichita has more workers employed in renewable energy than any other city in Kansas, with nearly 4,500 jobs, according to E2’s 2021 Clean Jobs Report.

E2, which stands for Environmental Entrepreneurs, is a national nonpartisan group of business professionals who advocate for policies that benefit the economy and the environment.

Kansas ranks 32nd in the nation for total clean energy employment, with more than 22,500 clean energy jobs, according to E2’s 2021 Clean Jobs Report. Between 2018 and 2020, clean energy jobs grew by 8%.

“Right now, there are about three million people who work in clean energy in America,” said Bob Keefe, the executive director of E2. “That’s three times the number of people that work in fossil fuels. It’s also more people than work as bankers, as real estate agents, as farmers in America.”

A resilient industry

Smith said Alltite made the decision to grow its green energy portfolio because the oil and gas industry is always in flux. It also helped diversify the company’s revenue.

Some clean energy jobs pay well, too. The wind turbine technicians at Alltite have a starting wage between $24 and $28 an hour and a per diem of $125 a day, which can go toward travel expenses. The workers also receive Alltite benefits.

Nationally, median pay for wind turbine technicians is $56,230 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2019 to 2029, employment in those jobs is expected to grow 61% — much faster than average.

Alltite is hiring for about 16 more wind turbine technicians. Interested applicants can learn more at alltite.com/company#careers.

“We’ve made a pretty significant shift across the industry. If we can do it, I know that other people can do it too. It’s possible,” Smith said.

And while Kansas clean energy jobs fell by 10% during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, “the good news is that these jobs started coming back in the second half of 2020, and are coming back faster than the rest of the economy,” said Keefe.

Nationally, clean energy jobs grew by 11% in the second half of 2020, compared to 9% growth in other sectors. Kansas clean energy jobs rebounded by 6%.

Expanding beyond wind

Wind is important part of Kansas renewable energy generation, but for the industry to grow, the state needs to move toward solar, energy storage and even clean energy manufacturing, industry experts say.

“We’ve seen a magnificent growth in wind development in Kansas over the last 15 or 20 years,” said Kimberly Svaty, a lobbyist for the Advance Power Alliance, a renewable energy advocacy group that works across the Great Plains. “That said, I don’t know if it’s possible for us to see the same type of growth replicated in the next 20 years. We’re bumping up to what we need in our state, without other technology innovations like storage.”

A transition to other forms of renewable energy will be necessary to continue to grow jobs, especially in rural areas of Kansas and eastern Colorado, which are Plains regions with similar wind and solar potential.

“We are in the same position that Kansas is,” said Troy McCue, executive director of Lincoln County Economic Development in eastern Colorado. “We haven’t seen that next chapter take off yet. We still are in the wind piece, but I’m looking forward to seeing the next chapter of solar.”

Lincoln County has seen the benefits wind energy brings to the rural Plains. With some technological development, McCue thinks solar will be the next revolution.

However, for rural communities to be able to invest in and benefit from solar, the industry will need to become more agriculturally friendly, McCue said. When farmers or ranchers add wind turbines to their land, their agricultural activities can run right up to base, meaning there isn’t much land lost.

Solar farms take up far more land than wind turbines do, however McCue said solar may work with sheep. Cattle are too tall, and it would be too expensive to raise the panels above their reach.

Manufacturing also holds potential for continued growth in clean energy jobs, said Eric Lantz, senior wind energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Kansas could invest there to stay on top of the green energy game.

“The (manufacturing) capacity that was built around 2010 was sufficient to support the industry for the last decade,” Lantz said. “However, if there’s a lot of talk within the current administration about accelerating the deployment of renewables, that might result in a significant increase in capacity . . . which might drive another round of manufacturing investment.”

One of the largest hurdles as Kansas and the Great Plains continue building renewable energy is the ability to export the power to other parts of the nation, said Lantz.

“For Kansas to continue to see the exponential growth that we’ve seen in the past 15 years, we either have to move more of our power out of the market to other places that are phasing out of their older, depreciated coal markets, and those are mainly on the east coast,” said Joshua Svaty, a lobbyist for the Advanced Power Alliance.

Qualifications and training

The qualifications to become a wind turbine technician aren’t that different from what Alltite requires of its non-renewable workers. However, Smith with Alltite said the job isn’t for everyone, as it does require cross-country travel.

“Ultimately we’re looking for someone that really wants to have a purpose-driven life and is looking for a cleaner world, someone that’s passionate about being on an adventure,” Smith said.

The technicians don’t necessarily need a four-year degree.

HirePaths is a Kansas-based workforce initiative, launched this year, that aims to educate families about the types of well-paying jobs they can get without a bachelor’s degree. That includes careers in clean energy as well as other positions.

Only about 24% of jobs in Kansas require a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Framework for Growth, the state’s economic development strategic plan.

Kristin Brighton is the principal at New Boston Creative Group, which staffs HirePaths. She said a bachelor’s degree has become the sort of gold standard career path to pursue after high school. While that’s the right route for some, it doesn’t have to be for everyone, she said.

“They shouldn’t feel in any way shamed or that they’ve let people down” for not going to a four-year college or university, Brighton said. “We’re trying to change people’s thinking to make it acceptable, because it’s what our economy needs.”

Lots of jobs in Kansas require only an associate’s degree, tech school or some type of trade certification. Brighton pointed to Cloud County Community College, the only college in Kansas approved to offer an associate’s degree in wind energy technology.

Some parents that HirePaths aims to reach might be concerned about growing gaps in income and wealth between workers with and without a four-year degree. Brighton said HirePaths also aims to highlight what she calls blue collar entrepreneurship.

“Maybe today it’s an entry-level position,” she said. “But after you master the trade, you can be self-employed or start your own business. People grow their income this way.”

Some highly skilled trade workers are also represented by unions, which tend to increase average wages.

The clean energy industry is growing quickly, and Brighton hopes HirePaths can push young workers and families along by raising awareness around what opportunities are available in Kansas.

“They might not even realize these are possible career paths,” Brighton said. “Kids can’t be interested in something they haven’t heard about.”

Federal support

In order for clean energy jobs to continue to grow, there needs to be solid state and federal policy to guide investment, said Keefe.

“Through the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan and some of its other climate-related programs, we know we can create a lot more jobs in these areas, but we need people in Congress to pass these policies so we can turn it from goals and ideas into reality,” Keefe said.

Historically, federal policies have had more significant impacts on renewable energy growth than any other efforts. However, as some of the federal tax incentives that supported wind energy expire, it’s unclear what the future holds for wind energy policies.

“Depending on how that plays out, the next few years might be a lull,” Lantz said. “But then general expectations are that it would pick back up again later in the 2020s, assuming that renewables continue to be a major priority for our energy system.”

Smith, with Alltite, said customers have already asked the company to expand its pool of wind workers even more. The business has to pause and make sure it has enough managers in place to support new hires though.

Currently, Alltite sends its wind turbine technicians to Colorado and Oklahoma for two weeks of training before starting on the job. But Smith said she would love to have a local option for that training instead.

“I could see on top of the manufacturing, the data and the construction pieces (of clean energy growth), I could absolutely see us bringing maybe some training facilities to actually be able to train these new people,” Smith said.

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Help us cover your community through The Eagle’s partnership with Report For America. Contribute now to help fund reporting on employment and other issues facing Wichita workers, and to support new reporters.

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Megan Stringer reports for The Wichita Eagle, where she focuses on issues facing the working class, labor and employment. She joined The Eagle in June 2020 as a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Previously, Stringer covered business and economic development for the USA Today Network-Wisconsin, where her award-winning stories touched on everything from retail to manufacturing and health care.

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Sarah Spicer reports for The Wichita Eagle and focuses on climate change in the region. She joined the Eagle in June 2020 as a Report for America corps member. A native Kansan, Spicer has won awards for her investigative reporting from the Kansas Press Association, the Chase and Lyon County Bar Association and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition.





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