Train­ing gap at trade level con­strains wind en­ergy growth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Derek Parker

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.’’

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