Eastern Grad’s Degree Offers Paths To Jobs In New Economy

When Maysville’s Danielle Nettles stepped across the stage at her college Commencement last May to receive her diploma, she joined some 35 other graduates of Eastern WV Community and Technical College who have earned the associate degree in Wind Energy Turbine Technology since the program opened in 2010  — and became only the second woman to do. With that training part of her skill set, her diploma can open new job possibilities for her in the new economy.

Wind turbine service technicians will enjoy “excellent” job prospects in the coming decade, according to the US Department of Labor, due, in part, to “a shortage of qualified workers in some areas.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects turbine tech employment “to grow 108 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.”

Today, men, known as turbine “cowboys” or turbine “jockeys,” do most of the work maintaining and repairing wind turbines. According to preliminary findings from a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study, “women make up approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of the wind workforce,” Kristen Graf, Executive Director of Women of Wind Energy (WoWE), pointed out. And because most of those female workers serve “in administrative and human resources roles,” the percentage of women among turbine techs appears significantly lower still.

Kelle Miller, left, and Danielle Nettles, in Eastern's turbine training nacelle at the college's Technology Trainng Center in Petersburg, ready with tools for hands-on training as wind energy turbine technicians

Like many of the women in the industry, Nettles may also eventually aspire to jobs other than turbine jockey. “I care a lot about the environment,” she noted. “And since Eastern doesn’t have a major in Environmental Science, wind energy tech seemed like a good choice for me.” She plans eventually to continue her studies towards a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science, with a specialization in Wind Technology.

Nettles recognized that not all environmentalists agree on the benefits of wind energy, and that some are “concerned that it is killing too many bats and birds, or destroying the habitat for the wood rat.” But “wind farms are not really taking away their environment,” she reasoned, because “animals adapt if something comes into their environment — it’s how they survive.”

Saving the Environment

As with the Potomac Highlands deer population, who “move to a different area” when human activity enters their habitats, animals in nature generally “learn to work around us. I have a lot of faith in nature,” Nettles said. “It’s much bigger than us. Eventually the birds will learn to avoid the turbines.

“Wind Energy, as a source of renewable energy, is really saving the environment.”

Now a college graduate with a wind tech degree, she has “got to find a job,” Nettles said. She would like to find “something in the wind industry,” and “the college gave us a few leads.” To optimize her job search skills, the college is also setting up a mock job interview for her as a training tool.

At the Pinnacle Wind Farm in Keyser, Harth Clem, the turbine supervisor, said that he has “never personally had the opportunity to work with any female wind techs” thus far, although he acknowledged “there are many out there.”

Also an Eastern graduate, Clem “would certainly consider hiring a female wind tech. Anyone with the right aptitude, work ethic, and training can be a successful wind technician,” he emphasized, “regardless of gender.”

A 2004 graduate of Parkersburg South High School, Nettles moved to Grant County after her “mother married a Petersburg man who inherited a farm.” Except for her dad, a career military man who graduated college just one year ago, Nettles is a first-generation college graduate. “My mom,” also career military, “took a few college classes, but she never finished,” she said.

Nettles had taken some courses previously at American Military University, but a family tragedy derailed her plans. Now that “my daughter is older, I decided to do something to make our lives better.” And she chose Eastern, she said, mostly for its convenience. “It’s local, and with a five-year old daughter, I couldn’t pick up and move to a big college town.”

Excellent Training

Once Nettles started going to classes at Eastern, she found that “there are a lot of intelligent people at the college. It was nice to talk with people who could actually talk about real things.”

The college also offered her an excellent training opportunity, according to Pinnacle Wind Farm’s Clem. “Workers trained with the skills and knowledge acquired at Eastern also have an understanding of the workplace attitudes and personal qualities necessary for success on the job,” he noted.

“In my experience, certificate and degree graduates of Eastern’s program are well-trained and well-prepared for employment.”

Danielle Nettles at her Phi Theta Kappa induction in the spring of 2016, standing by a sign that reads: 'Phi Theta Kappa-Good As Gold'

If Nettles’ college achievements offer evidence, she made the most of the opportunity, earning a place on the President’s List, Eastern’s top academic honor, in the spring semesters of both 2015 and 2016. Based on that record, the college’s Beta Nu Lambda chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges, chose her for membership last March.

“Until Eastern, I did not realize how much potential I had. I learned my potential at Eastern,” Nettles emphasized. “It challenged me to be better.

“It’s a wonderful school,” she said. “It’s a great place for people to start for sure.”

Now that Nettles has reached that first milestone on her path towards making a better future for her family, an emerging new economy, in need of her skills, beckons. “Green jobs are the jobs of the future,” according to the US Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

Better Wages/Benefits

“The emerging clean energy economy is shaping employment opportunities across the country” and “offers exciting opportunities for women,” former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis noted recently. Clean energy jobs “generally offer higher wages and better benefits than the types of jobs in which women are now clustered.”

In that respect, WoWE’s Kristen Graf likes to quote Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ insight. Speaking of Saudi Arabia’s wish to join the world’s top ten high-tech economies, Gates pointed out, “If you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” Graf believes the same concept applies equally well to America’s wind energy industry.

Sara Manzano-Díaz, the Women’s Bureau’s former director, agreed. “We must make sure that women are adequately represented in the ranks of workers in green jobs.”

For more information about Eastern’s financial aid opportunities, programs of study, workforce training and community education and events, call 304-434-8000, or toll-free: 877-982-2322; or check the College’s website: “www.easternwv.edu”.

Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College is a comprehensive and equal opportunity community and technical college that makes educational resources accessible to the families, communities, and employers of Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral, Pendleton and Tucker counties. Eastern is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.