Workers wanted: Demand for Lethbridge turbine technicians outpaces available staff

People walk through the wind turbine technician shop at Lethbridge College on March 10, 2023. The program has seen a dip in enrolment this year. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
People walk through the wind turbine technician shop at Lethbridge College on March 10, 2023. The program has seen a dip in enrolment this year. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

Renewable energy is playing an increasingly large role in Alberta's energy sector, but at a Lethbridge school, instructors say demand for wind turbine operators is growing faster than the available workforce.

CBC previously reported that the province now gets more power from wind, solar and hydro than it does coal, according to data from the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO).

But a worker shortage was one of the topics on people's minds during the recruitment fair at Lethbridge College's Wind Summit, an event that brought together industry, students and the public.

The college is home to the only Wind Turbine Technician program west of Ontario. In one year, students learn the skills needed to maintain turbines. It is mechanics, hydraulics, safety and rescue-training rolled into one.

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

"We certainly have in our opinion the best training facility in Canada," says instructor Kelly Norgard.

Norgard says this year, registrations have been down at Lethbridge College's trade programs, particularly in the wind technician program, but he isn't sure why.

Growing demand for renewable energy

In his role as site manager at Borea Construction — a renewable energy construction company— Shane Cormier has seen the increased demand for renewable energy firsthand.

"Wind was always considered a very expensive form of energy," he says.

Now though, advances in technology mean turbines are more efficient making wind a cheap and profitable source of energy. This combined with a federal government focus on renewable energy puts them in a bind.

"We have a lot of projects being issued and not a lot of support staff to do it."

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

Negative perception hurting trades, says program developer

Donna Wesley is a program developer at Careers The Next Generation, non-profit that helps connect youth in Alberta to opportunities in industry — particularly the trades.

"There is a perception, that I believe this is a wrong perception, that going into the trades isn't education," said Wesley.

"We need to get across to parents, families, students, teachers and schools the fact that a trade is a post-secondary opportunity and that we should be very willing to let our children and our youth pursue those opportunities."

Wesley says many young people don't even know these jobs exist, especially in an emerging field like renewable energy.

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

While southern Alberta is prime for wind and solar energy due to its strong winds and high number of sunny days, when energy and Alberta are in the same sentence, oil and gas is top of mind.

"How can we get that information out to high school kids so that they know renewable energy is a viable option and that there's more to working in Alberta than oil and gas?" said Cormier.

Turbine technician role appeals to thrill seekers

The talent that is available is being scooped up quickly.

"I would pretty much guarantee every one of our graduating students will have a job by the end of the day," said Norgard.

One of those hoping to land a gig is Phil Walther.

"I grew up in the area in Lethbridge. Obviously driving around the highways here you see all the wind farms and I always kind of wondered what it would be like to work on them."

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

As an avid snowboarder and self described adrenaline junkie, the opportunity to work at heights appealed to Walther. ALIS, the Alberta Learning Information Service, lists the average wage of a turbine technician at  $45 per hour and a chance to make that kind of money was also enticing.

However, what was most important to him was the chance to keep learning. The program prepares graduates to start working, but companies often continue to train their employees in different specializations.

Programs encourage more involvement 

Before the pandemic Careers The Next Generation only served high school students, now the organization is working with people up to 20 years old.

"We realized that there is some of our youth aged 20, 19, 18 have kind of missed out on those opportunities that their colleagues years earlier may have had in school because they were stuck at home," said Wesley.

In January, Lethbridge College launched a dual-credit intro to trades program in partnership with six school districts that allows students to earn high school and college credit.

"We really do encourage people to consider this career, and there's lots of pathways that they can pursue," said Norgard.