Training gap at trade level constrains wind energy growth
THE wind energy industry is experiencing steady growth, but an emerging constraint is a lack of opportunities for training and skills development at trade level. At present there are no courses or organised classes for people who want to learn about building and operating turbines and related machinery, and the training that exists is piecemeal and disorganised.
Yet in contradiction to this pattern, there is considerable strength at university postgraduate levels on research into wind power, especially in engineering faculties.
‘‘ If you work through the list of classes offered at universities, you probably won’t find much,’’ says associate professor David Wood, of Newcastle University — widely regarded as a leader in wind energy research and engineering — and founder of Aerogenesis, a company that is commercialising small wind turbine technology developed at the University of Newcastle.
‘‘ But there are several dozen students who are working in the field in accredited research projects. They have produced some groundbreaking work, especially in areas such as small turbines and other niches. It’s not a huge number of people, but taken together it is a group that, in global terms, punches well above its weight.
‘‘ Australian researchers in this field are well- regarded around the world. Several have gone on to work on international projects or have linked up with top- tier companies. So there is definitely an interest to the level that indicates that universities should be adding wind energy technology to the class options available to students.’’
But Wood quickly admits that the research expertise is not matched by grass- roots training.
‘‘ There is trade- level skills development on solar energy, but not on wind,’’ he says. ‘‘ It might relate to the relative lack of interest in renewable energy shown by the previous commonwealth Government, although I don’t think that is the whole story. Maybe the wind energy industry hasn’t reached a point of critical mass yet, so the company- based training we have seen so far has been sufficient to keep pace. ‘‘ But that’s not going to last.’’ Among manufacturing companies in the industry there is also a growing feeling that change is needed.
‘‘ To date, it’s all been a matter of training as you go along,’’ says Ken Creece, operations manager for Keppel Prince Engineering, a firm based in Portland on the western Victorian coast. Keppel Prince started in the wind industry by building tower shells and internal components, and diversified into the construction of tower foundations and turbine installation. It is now moving into maintenance and is developing a significant export potential for towers.
‘‘ When we began we worked with a German company which taught some of our people skills in this area,’’ he says. ‘‘ Those people learned more from experience, and now they are training new employees. It’s a bit easier if new people have got some basic skills, but in most cases they’re pretty raw.
‘‘ It is a slow process, both for the person being trained and the person doing the training. It has worked well enough, but something more organised is needed for a growing industry. The maintenance side alone is going to be huge.’’
Creece suggests that the company would be willing to provide financial support for employees to attend short training courses, as it would be much more cost- effective than the current one- on- one training arrangements. He notes that Keppel Prince already works closely with the local TAFE to explain its needs, especially in the key area of sub- arc welding, but none of the available courses relates specifically to the wind industry.
‘‘ A short course could provide some broad skills, which could then be topped up by more advanced in- company training and on- thejob experience,’’ he says. ‘‘ A course, and maybe a series of courses, would also provide a qualification that would be of value to employees, offering a career path and allowing them to move between companies.’’
‘‘ My impression is that young employees in particular are very enthusiastic about working in the wind industry. They see it as a growth area and they want to be a part of an industry that is doing something positive for the environment. So we should be doing everything possible to make it a good place for a career.’’
Likewise, Wood sees a number of options for building the skills base and supporting the next phase of the industry’s development.
‘‘ There are quite a few training ideas that might be considered,’’ he says. ‘‘ TAFEs are a logical place to start, and apprenticeships with specific accreditation.
‘‘ Short courses provided by an industry association might also turn out to be a good model. I am sure there are people currently working in the manufacturing, installation and maintenance areas who could share their experience. It is in everyone’s interest to see the industry continue its growth.’’