PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Benjamin Dutil, who will be one of the pioneer graduates from Northern Maine Community College’s wind power technology program on May 14, has heard most of the criticisms and myths about wind power. The one that rankles him the most, however, is the belief that students in the program are “training for jobs that aren’t out there.”
“I think that what they hear about our job prospects is going to deflate that myth,” the 36-year-old, who moved to Ashland from Winslow to enroll in the program two years ago, said during a recent interview. “The jobs are out there. I am proof, and so are a number of my fellow graduates.”
During commencement exercises at NMCC next Saturday, 14 wind power technology students will receive associate degrees. The college launched this program, the first of its kind in New England, in 2008. Students in the program learn to operate, maintain and repair wind turbine generators. The program quickly became popular and helped to boost enrollment at the college.
Dutil and his classmate Matt Melcher, 30, of Bingham already have secured jobs in the industry, which they will begin at the end of the month. And this week, six more graduates will interview with manufacturers such as Siemens and with officials from General Electric, which maintains operations at a number of wind farm sites including Mars Hill, Stetson and Lincoln.
“In my opinion, their chances of getting those jobs are fantastic,” said Wayne Kilcollins, the program’s instructor. “Since the start, we have been talking with officials in the industry about placing these graduates once they had their degree. These companies are pretty excited about them.”
The program also has attracted the attention of donors. Just last month, NMCC officially dedicated the Northern Maine Center for Excellence in Alternative Energy Training and Education. The facility was made possible thanks to a $1.2 million donation from California resident and Presque Isle native Mary Smith, who bestowed the gift in honor of her late husband.
Dutil and Melcher said they are both “very excited” to receive their degrees. Both will go to work for Vestas, an international company that maintains the turbines at the Kibby Mountain project in Franklin County. Both said they were “anxious” when they first started taking courses in 2009, as they were entering a field neither knew much about.
“The textbooks looked foreign to me,” recalled Dutil. “But very shortly after we started classes, we climbed the wind turbine at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. When I got to the top, I knew I was hooked.”
“So was I,” Melcher added. “I wasn’t a very good student in high school, but that changed here. I really immersed myself in my education.”
The 30-year-old said it was daunting, at first, to see how much of their studies involved electronics, something he said was “very new” to him. But the two studied hard and spent last summer working in paid internships on wind development projects around Maine.
“That definitely gave me more confidence in my skills for when I came back for the second year of the program,” Dutil said.
Melcher agreed, adding that his internship experience made him “more eager” to get through the second year so he could begin working in the field. To enhance their skills and marketability, both men took a course at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine to become certified in helicopter underwater egress and surface vessel emergency operations. Such training is required by the U.S. Coast Guard for all workers on oil and natural gas platforms and now for technicians working on offshore wind projects.
Kilcollins said he “couldn’t be more excited” about the future of his students.
“I am not at all surprised about how fast these guys have been offered jobs or gotten interviews,” he said. “They have been nothing but dedicated, hardworking students. I know that the critics have said that these students are training for jobs that don’t exist, but it just isn’t true. It is like what happened in the 1900s, when people thought that cars were just a fad, so there would be no need to train people to fix them. It is the same with windmills. They are here, they are being used more and more, and they are going to break down. Someone will need to know how to fix them.”
Over the past two years, Kilcollins has stayed in frequent contact with industry officials and employers and adjusted the curriculum of the program to meet the changing demands of the field. Along with offering students the chance to secure specialized training, the college also worked with County Physical Therapy in Presque Isle to institute a program to ensure students are prepared for and capable of undertaking the rigorous work that is necessary for their profession.
Melcher and Dutil acknowledged that the political rhetoric on wind has increased greatly over the past two years, but both said they have worked hard to educate people about wind power. They recently testified before the Maine Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, which is considering 13 bills meant to modify recent state policies that encourage wind power. Dutil also led NMCC’s effort to host one of just 22 clean energy forums sponsored by the national nonprofit group Focus the Nation in early March.
The two also believe the future will bring growth in the industry.
“I have a 15-year-old daughter who is super-excited about green energy and taking care of the planet,” said Dutil. “I think wind power will be more acceptable in the future, and that people will ignore the turbines just like they think nothing of seeing solar panels on the roofs of homes and businesses.”
The two credited much of their success in the program to Kilcollins, who they said went “above and beyond” to help them every step of the way.
This fall, 20 students will begin their second year in the program, and 20 freshmen will enter it. Five wind power graduates will further their studies at NMCC by continuing for an additional year to earn an associate degree in electrical construction and maintenance.
Kilcollins said his strategy for the fall semester will be “to keep growing along with the students.”
“We will keep adding and changing the program as the industry demands,” he said. “We will start working in our new [alternative energy] center, and I see nothing but continued growth for this program, and for this college, in the future.”