The company is in its third year of hiring and training veterans for contract wind farm work. It is an offshoot of Orion International, which has committed an additional $154,000 to the grant award for training, tools and equipment. Orion, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been placing veterans in permanent jobs for a variety of technical industries since 1991 – including more than 400 wind industry workers in recent years.
Orion started focusing on the energy sector a few years ago and was successful in the wind area. About two and a half years ago, it decided to provide veterans as contractors as the industry often uses agencies to find staff.
New employees for both companies are trained by Airstreams, which has been schooling wind industry technicians at its base in Tehachapi, California, since 2003. The DOE grant will be used to define and fund a five-week curriculum that combines intensive safety training along with segments that cover basic wind industry knowledge and hands-on work with specific turbines. Wages for qualified technicians start around $20 an hour and include significant overtime opportunities. The training will be free for the veterans.
Orion’s president, Mike Starich, a former marine captain, says companies like Clipper, Vestas and AES have seen what military veterans can bring to the job by hiring Gemini employees for permanent positions. "Veterans are used to the travel," Starich says. "But, above all else, it’s their technical skills combined with maturity and the ability to make smart decisions. That makes it a nice fit overall."
Jimmy Haley, Gemini’s director of operations, spent six years in the navy, where he worked extensively with gas turbines. He sees many similarities between working in an engineering plant on navy ships and the technical aspects of wind turbines. "You’ll find the same components in a wind tower that you’ll find in a destroyer on the Pacific Ocean," he says. "The biggest difference is that the stuff in the tower is a little bit smaller and 300 feet in the air instead of at sea level. But the similarities are great and that helps make it an easy transition."
Gemini expects to add significantly to the around 40 contract workers it employs. "Last year alone we worked on sites that totalled over 1GW," Haley says. "That’s including commissioning work, installation work, a lot of retrofits, and some scheduled and unscheduled maintenance services for our clients."
Haley says that with roughly 250,000 active-duty military personnel transitioning into the civilian sector each year, competition to get into the company’s training programs can be fierce. Gemini relies on Orion to find ideal candidates – who are pre-screened for safe driving records, clean drug tests, physical fitness and fear of heights.
"The wind industry in general provides pretty good-looking jobs for military people that are transitioning back to civilian life," Haley says. "It’s interesting work, it’s renewable energy and a lot of people get excited about it."