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Wind Energy Fuels Job Hopes for Oklahoma Youth

June 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the final installment of her Generation Next series, which has aired on both the NewsHour and NPR, Judy Woodruff reports on how wind energy is generating new career prospects for young Americans in the Sooner State.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the final in my series of reports on Generation Next.

Over the past month, I’ve been examining how young people are coping with the recession. Tonight we end with two young men who think they have found a field which will keep them employed and engaged for a long time to come.

NATHAN WRIGHT, JR.: It’ll hold you. It’s not going to fail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Twenty-three-year-old Nathan Wright has his eye on the sky and the future. After realizing he didn’t want to be pushing papers all day or entering the industry his state of Oklahoma has long been known for — oil and gas — he decided to pursue a different path.

He entered a technology program at Oklahoma State University focusing on wind turbines, as they pronounce it locally.

NATHAN WRIGHT, JR.: We can’t always depend on oil. There’s been booms, there’s been busts with the oil industry. You don’t know when the next one is, for a boom. You don’t know when the next bust is, either.

But wind industry looks like it’s going to be something that’s going to be a constant. You know, the wind never really stops blowing in Oklahoma. It’s always windy here.

PERFORMER (singing): Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, as the 1955 movie “Oklahoma!” suggests, the 10th-windiest state is very appealing to national and international wind companies because of the central position in the heart of the wind corridor.

NATHAN WRIGHT, JR.: I actually saw a thing on the news Friday evening. Monday morning, I went straight to Dr. Nielsen’s office at the OSU campus, was discussing with him about what the classes were going to be, how they were going to go, and what the future would be for me as a student in that industry.

Classroom training

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it happened that fast?

NATHAN WRIGHT, JR.: Yes, ma'am, just kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the more I looked into it, the more I really was happy with my decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jerry Nielsen is the lead professor for this inaugural group of 60 students in the state's first wind turbine technology degree program which started just this past fall. The students study basic electricity, industrial electronics, and wind energy industry fundamentals.

JERRY NIELSEN, OSU-Oklahoma City: They're young and energetic, quite capable of being good technicians, climbing one or two or three towers a day. It's a long ways up there. They're in shape. They're intelligent, excited about this job.

A lot of our students -- in fact, most of our students -- want to stay in Oklahoma. And we're getting a lot of calls from rural Oklahoma, where students live out in small towns. There's not a whole lot that they can do once they get out of high school.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Stengle has worked for Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company for 34 years and now is teaching a transmission and distribution class on wind energy at Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City.

JIM STENGLE, Oklahoma Gas and Electric: These kids are 18 to 25 years old. They can get into the industry. They can learn about it. They can tell their children about it. Their children can find jobs in the industry. It's going to do nothing but grow more as we go on.

JOURNALIST: So, no limit on wind?

JIM STENGLE: Not in Oklahoma. Keep your hat on.

Massive job creation

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Oklahoma's secretary of commerce and tourism, Natalie Shirley, says in the next 10 years the wind turbine industry, domestic and commercial, will create about 18,000 jobs and bring the state close to $2 billion of new business revenues.

While the oil and natural gas industry contributes almost $30 billion to Oklahoma's gross state product each year and almost 270,000 jobs, there are forecasts that Oklahoma could also be the second-highest wind energy provider in North America as soon as 2030.

Critics say connecting the wind power to the grid on a larger scale may prove difficult, but Shirley says she believes it can happen.

NATALIE SHIRLEY, secretary of Commerce and Tourism: People are excited about the opportunities that exist in green energy, and they want to know, what can I do for my environment? What can I do for my family? And what can I do for my state? And wind answers all three of those.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wright works at the local Wal-Mart and lives at home in Edmond, Oklahoma, with his family as he studies. His dad, Nathan, Sr., was a roughneck oil worker in the Gulf of Mexico straight out of high school and got out of the business when Nathan was young because after a boon came the bust of the '80s, which some say was the most defining economic event in Oklahoma in the last half-century.

NATHAN WRIGHT, SR.: I never wanted him to go into that business. I guess, being 18 when I started, I just wanted something where he didn't just have to get out there and break his back every day like so many of these guys do.

LISA WRIGHT: We've encouraged our kids, you know, don't put all your ducks in one tub, you know? Have a backup plan. Don't just have one skill. You know, be flexible, where you're not just stuck with one thing to do, you know, like we were with him with the oil field and then having to find something else to do.

EMPLOYEE: Right now, we've got four wind sites, maybe five. That will double this year, and then probably it will triple by the next year.

Obama gives green energy a boost

JUDY WOODRUFF: At Evans Electric, which builds and services wind turbines, the first time OSU students learn more about what their classroom training has prepared them for in the field. The green-collar jobs, two available for every graduate, pay about $45,000 right out of the two-year program.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to renewable energy, I don't think we should be followers; I think it's time for us to lead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oklahomans say it didn't hurt that the president gave wind energy and other renewables a big boost on Earth Day.

Twenty-one-year-old Casey Wenzel is also counting on a future in wind.

CASEY WENZEL: It kind of gives an adrenaline rush, I guess. So any kind of job you can have that creates some kind of excitement, you know, you don't have to wake up the next day and be like, "Oh, man, I've got to go to work." You get to be like, "You know, all right, I get to go to work. You know, it's fun."

JUDY WOODRUFF: He considered several fields, including oil and gas, where his brother and close friends work, but they warned him away.

CASEY WENZEL: It's never really a secure thing. And I have a friend -- he's a really good friend of mine -- that works in it, and the dangers that he talks about with it, and he's having to be away from his family a lot being in Louisiana.

And so, I mean, he was like, "You know, if you want to get a job here, you know, I can probably get you a job," but he was like, "I don't advise you to do it, just because of the ups and downs of the oil business, and it's not really a stable living life."

Good business climate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wenzel works at a horse auction business to earn money for school and lives at home with his parents on their farm in the small town of Blanchard.

JIMMIE RAY WENZEL: I'm sure there's problems. There's problems with everything. Nothing's perfect.

But, you know, it's a God-given way to go a different direction, maybe, so maybe we can work through the problems. And it can't be all bad. So we've already seen what oil and what the oil does to the economy and does to the people, does to the land. So, you know, it's definitely worth researching and trying to make a go at it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wind jobs run the gamut from production to manufacturing, research, training and education, to the building, operating, and maintaining of wind farms. Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower, says wind marks a huge industrial shift, and young people can ride the wind wave.

MIKE BERGEY, president, Bergey Windpower: They're a little more job-oriented than maybe some of their peers. They're maybe less consumed with their text messaging and sort of they have a broader picture of the world.

And they see the opportunity. They see the trend towards clean energies. This is the best business environment we've ever seen. It's one of the bright spots in an otherwise pretty marginal-to-bleak landscape.

NATHAN WRIGHT, JR.: I think it's going to affect our generation a lot. We have to be wiser with our decisions than how we handle things with the economy, with energy than previous generations have, because if we don't change how we're doing something, we keep going down the same road, it's not going to get any better, it's not going to improve.

If you don't make a decision, sooner or later, you're going to have a decision that's going to be made for you. So I decided to go with this, and I was fortunate that it was something that I enjoy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So much so that Wright now says he wants to go beyond the two-year program and pursue a four-year electronics engineering degree so he can go into wind turbine management.