WALLA WALLA - Two Walla Walla Community College students climb a ladder to the catwalk above the Performing Arts Center main stage, do an about-face, and come back down. Their feet barely touch the floor before they are headed back for another ascent. The cable glider, a safety device that connects the climber to the cable, hums quietly up the line, interrupted only by the clanking of the double lanyards that hang from each climber's Exofit harness. "That takes the air out of you," student David Stadnik remarked after his third and final climb. "Sound like something you want to do for a living?" asked James Bradshaw, who supervised the climb test.
Stadnik and Bobby Bafus may soon be the two newest members to the Wind Energy Technology program at the community college.
The ladder test - three climbs up and down a 50-foot ladder to simulate a 300-foot wind turbine ladder - is one of several prerequisites for the program. Students also must pass a mechanical aptitude test, complete an Introduction to Wind Energy course, have a valid driver's license and maintain a clean driving record to be eligible for the program.
The wind tech program is part of the college's Energy Systems Technology department, which prepares students for work in the energy industry. Bradshaw was appointed director of Energy Systems Technology earlier this year.
Hiring Bradshaw, who brought years of experience in the wind industry, was part of the college's plan to shape the wind technology program into a successful, model program.
"You can't have a formal training program without the right people in place," said Mindy Stevens, vice president of instruction for Workforce education.
Workforce focuses on helping program graduates find and secure employment once they leave the school.
Bradshaw's first job was on a wind farm with Vestas American Wind Technology in 2004. He quickly moved up the ranks to become more of a supervisor, and learned the business end of wind technology when he took a job with PacifiCorp.
"(PacifiCorp) actually sold the power that we made from wind energy," he said.
Bradshaw is also the lead instructor for wind technology at the college.
"He wants to make sure when we get out of here that we know what we're doing," said Rodney Viaene, a first-year student, about Bradshaw. "You can come to school, learn a lot, go to your job, and find out that you don't know anything. James doesn't want that."
Justin Smythe, another first-year student, added, "James has been in the dirt and the nitty-gritty. He's been in the field and that's what we want."
Don Miller, the Workforce director for Energy Systems Technology, said the wind program's "ultimate goal is providing work force for the region and the state." He emphasized that this program can offer students "living wage employment" through an occupation in demand for trained workers.
For students, that means opportunities not too far from home.
"We do have a need for lots of technicians out here," Miller said.
Graduates can make about $24 an hour as technicians, or closer to $14 with a one-year certificate, Miller said. Students earn an associate's degree in applied arts and sciences after two years, or the one-year certificate option, although the goal is to graduate the bulk of students through the full two years.
"The industry is encouraging a second year (of training)," Bradshaw said.
Currently there are 17 students in the first year of the program, and seven who are qualified as second-year students.
Although the wind technology program debuted this school year, it actually started developing last year as a pilot, or "pre-wind" program, that had several students enrolled.
Even with the pre-wind courses in place, the future of a wind technology program was still taking shape last school year. As the end of the school year neared, it became clearer that wind technology was a promising field of study with potentially high demand.
College leaders agreed to end the school's precision machining program, which had low enrollment, high program costs, and fewer job opportunities.
The savings from cutting precision machining went toward developing wind technology. The former precision machining work space is now going to house the new program. And this winter quarter, a similar program will open at the college's Clarkston campus.
By taking on a program geared toward a growing industry, the college has also qualified for state grants. In July, Sen. Patty Murray committed $500,000 to the program, although the funds are currently in committee review. That money is part of a $5 million development grant for renewable energy technologies in Washington state.
As the new wind technology program was established, students in the first pilot year were asked to continue with the program into the second year. The second year includes advanced electrical training and business courses.
The size of the program, however, is unlikely to increase much more.
"It is our responsibility to train only for potential employment," Miller said. "If we're training (for) potential employment, there is no oversupply."
Administrators hope to track future demand in the wind energy industry, and limit admission into the program to match the number of available jobs in the field. By requiring an introductory course to wind energy and the ladder test, Bradshaw can better guarantee that students are qualified for the program and want to become wind technicians.
"We're trying to ID the right person," he said.
Having qualified technicians is one of Bradshaw's key goals.
Bradshaw was working in the industry when a wind turbine in Wasco, Ore., collapsed in 2007 and killed an employee.
"The whole industry had a safety stand-down after that," he said. Bradshaw said more proper training could have helped prevent such an event.
Wind energy is projected to continue growing, at least for the next few years. The U.S. Department of Energy aims to provide 20 percent of all energy in the U.S. from wind by 2030. Miller and Bradshaw have tracked growth in wind turbines in Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Oregon and Idaho over the last decade.
"It's a new industry," Bradshaw said. With new construction, comes the need for qualified employees.
Bradshaw and Miller hope the new wind-specific technical program will create a generation of future instructors and supervisors. Already, they have noticed other wind technician programs modeling their curriculum after the Walla Walla program.
"I think our country needs better energy sources. Wind is that for renewable energy," first-year student Viaene said. "It's a good thing for our area. We need to change, and it opens futures for people in industry."