s many of New England’s industrial cities fell into decline in recent decades, the wealthier residents of Martha’s Vineyard, a regional center of affluence and privilege, have gotten richer, building and rebuilding beachfront megamansions. Their good fortune is not shared by everyone else on the island where there has been a lot of economic inequality. For Michael Friedman, a 55-year-old IT engineer, rising prices driven by rich residents’ expanding wealth have made it harder to stay and raise his family on the tree-covered Massachusetts island where he grew up. “What can you say?” he says, driving past the Obama family’s Vineyard property in late October. “We’ll try to make a go of it.”
Now, 15 miles off the island’s coast, a new green-energy project is getting under way that many hope will begin to spread the wealth. In a matter of months, workers will begin erecting 837-ft.-tall wind turbines for Vineyard Wind, the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm. The plant, once fully functional, will produce 800 megawatts, which is enough power to power nearly 400,000 homes. More than a dozen other East Coast offshore wind projects are awaiting government approval, and the plans portend an entirely new clean-energy industry—with thousands of new, high-paying jobs to go along with it.
A sea survival course is offered to workers at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Bourne (Mass.).
Tony Luong, TIME
But there’s a catch: hardly any U.S. workers have experience building and operating offshore turbines. Unions, community colleges and unions are filling this gap with training programs to help create an American workforce for offshore wind. For organizations that have plowed considerable time and money into education programs for projects that don’t yet exist, these efforts are something of a leap of faith. It is the same for those who have taken these courses and are hoping to find a new, highly-skilled clean-energy sector.
Friedman, one such would-be worker in the wind industry. For months he’s been taking online classes for an offshore-wind-tech certification through ACE MV (Adult & Community Education Martha’s Vineyard) and Bristol Community College. He’s taking the course partly for personal interest, though he says he would consider switching careers if the opportunity came up. But with Vineyard Wind more than a year and a half from producing power, he’s far from certain that the work he and his fellow students are doing will result in a job. Since decades, offshore wind has been on the horizon. A Massachusetts-based venture called Cape Wind was stopped in 2017 by endless legal disputes. Things are likely to be different with Vineyard Wind—the project is located farther offshore and hasn’t faced the same intensity of local backlash—but many, like Friedman, remain skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says.
Others are also diving in. One morning in November, several Piledrivers Local 56 employees shivered while they floated through the Buzzards Bay, Mass. ice water, during a training session. Nick Fileccia had been making a couple of wisecracks during a safety lecture. After the piledrivers donned orange survival suits for the ocean and dropped off the dock, Nick Fileccia was serious. “Man, that water,” he said after emerging from 30 minutes in the frigid bay, during which he and his classmates had to right an overturned life raft. “I was all jokes until we got in that water.”
Briana Palmarin climbs up a ladder in order to simulate climbing on a wind turbine.
Tony Luong, TIME
Paul Doolan flots in water during an emergency rescue course.
Tony Luong, TIME
The exercise was part a Global Wind Organisation training program. It prepared millwrights, ironworkers, and other tradespeople to face the special challenges of working at sea. Besides sea–survival modules and classroom components, it includes portions on working at heights, first aid and fire safety. “A lot of it is teaching them skills that we hope that they never have to use,” says Mike Burns, director of the Center for Maritime and Professional Training at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “Practicing an emergency escape from a wind turbine is something you hope you never have to do in real life, but you’re glad that you’ve been trained how to do it.” The academy is currently one of the only places in the U.S. where workers can get this type of training, but it may soon be offered at many more locations up and down the East Coast.
One of the biggest supporters for such programs is labor organizations. The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, for instance, is planning to upgrade a training facility in New Jersey with a wind–turbine mock-up, cranes and other equipment. “We’re in it for about $700,000, $800,000 so far,” says William Sproule, the organization’s executive secretary-treasurer. Meanwhile, the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council is planning to increase class sizes in existing training programs to up the number of workers it can prepare for anticipated local offshore wind projects. “We are really at the very beginning, the precipice, of offshore wind on the East Coast,” says union president Gary LaBarbera. Vineyard Wind will soon be underway. The Massachusetts Building Trades Council is another union that plans to establish a pipeline for offshore worker training. It will train newer workers in the construction of electrical substations and later on, move them out to sea. “That’s the way you develop a stable workforce and a skilled workforce for this industry,” says union president Frank Callahan.
Meanwhile, Bristol Community College, where Friedman is currently studying, is sinking $10 million into launching what it’s calling the National Offshore Wind Institute. The facility is scheduled to open in 2022. It will be a training center that will not only teach courses but also offer classes on finance, insurance, and other aspects of offshore wind. Jennifer Menard, the college’s vice president of economic and business development, says her goal is to help replicate the economic investment that offshore wind spurred in cities like Cuxhaven in Germany and Hull in the U.K. Menard says that such renewal requires boosting investments in education, to help fill the gaps in current U.S. workers. “I saw what offshore wind could bring,” she says. “It was just an opportunity that we wanted to be ready for.”
In the next few years, workers who will be building new offshore wind farm along the U.S. East Coast are trained on how to work at sea as well as emergency survival skills.
Tony Luong, TIME
The U.S. may find Europe, where offshore winds are a well-established industry, a great place to train. Orsted, the Danish offshore-wind company, will bring more than 12 American workers to its European training sites. They plan on staying there for several months. The idea, says Orsted’s head of North America operations Mikkel Maehlisen, is to create an elite group of workers who can in turn train more Americans as the company’s U.S. projects—like a planned 700–megawatt wind farm off Rhode Island—get under way.
Despite this flurry of training investment, some U.S. labor leaders worry that as the country decarbonizes, an expansion of offshore wind won’t provide as many jobs as its proponents hope, especially compared with the expected loss of labor-intensive fossil-fuel power-plant projects. David Langlais, business manager of Ironworkers Local 37 in Rhode Island, is particularly concerned about the fact that many offshore-wind–related jobs come from manufacturing turbine components—an industry based largely in Europe—rather than erecting and maintaining such equipment offshore. “There’ll be a tremendous amount of hours that the American workforce will lose out on,” he says.
Langlais wants offshore–wind manufacturers like GE, which is supplying turbines to the Vineyard Wind project and makes many of its components in France, to produce turbines and similar gear domestically—a goal offshore-wind developers say they support. Orsted, for instance, has tapped Local 37 iron-workers to help erect a huge steel structure at the port in Providence, R.I., to be used to manufacture bases for the company’s offshore turbines. Langlais, despite reservations regarding offshore wind, says that his union supports the transition to green energy.
“I’m not a scientist, but clearly we’re getting more hurricanes, we’re getting worse storms, it’s getting warmer,” Langlais says. “There’s obviously something to this climate change, and it has to do with carbon emissions. So we have to do the right thing.”
Paul Doolan (left), Nick Fileccia (right), and Gerard Mullin in a move heavy equipment exercise with Megan Amsler.
Tony Luong, TIME
Back on Martha’s Vineyard, Miles Brucculeri, 44, is studying hard despite his doubts about future employment. He’s worked as a surfing instructor for the past two decades but isn’t sure how much longer he’ll be able to swim the five daily miles such work requires, and he’s been frustrated by a lack of local work opportunities with health benefits during the long off-season. “You’re either serving rich people in this kind of fake, rich-people economy, or there’s not much out here,” he says. At the moment, Brucculeri is 11 months into Bristol Community College’s two-year offshore-wind education course. By the time he finishes, Vineyard Wind’s offshore turbines will still be at least six months from producing power. Even after they go online, there’s no guarantee he’ll be hired as a technician. However, offshore wind will not take off in America like it did elsewhere. This is why more people just like him must take the leap. “The opportunity came up, so I took it,” Brucculeri says. “I don’t know where it’s gonna lead.”
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