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Job training for a sky-high office

NEKOMA, N.D. -- Chris Solseth strapped on a 40-pound harness loaded with specialized equipment Friday morning and started scaling the inside of a tower -- up, up, 250 feet above the surrounding yellow-flowered canola fields -- to its nacelle, or ...

NEKOMA, N.D. -- Chris Solseth strapped on a 40-pound harness loaded with specialized equipment Friday morning and started scaling the inside of a tower -- up, up, 250 feet above the surrounding yellow-flowered canola fields -- to its nacelle, or hub, at the Langdon Wind Energy Center.

Once on top, he climbed outside in 20-mph winds and gazed off into the distance. He saw Langdon to the north, Osnabrock to the northeast, Fairdale to the southeast and Edmore to the southwest, all at least a dozen miles away as a crow flies.

"It's a rush," the 2008 graduate of Cando (N.D.) High School said after he returned to the ground, but not necessarily back down to earth. "It definitely was worth getting up for this morning."

Friday was orientation day for Solseth, one of 18 students enrolled in a new wind turbine technician program at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. The two-year program begins its first classes in August.

In the heights

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The climb gives students a sense of the working environment they will be entering after completing the program and joining a wind farm technician crew.

"We want to see if they can handle the heights before they start in the program," said Jay Johnson, Lake Region's wind energy program director and head teacher.

They also have to work inside the nacelle, or hub, which is a cramped quarters filled with highly technical operational equipment that has to be maintained. Some liken it to crawling through a mini-van packed for a summer vacation, or a gerbil-like tube that can be found in playgrounds or at McDonald's Play Place.

"Outside, it's like balancing on the nosecone of an airplane," said Bill Campbell, Langdon Wind Energy Center plant leader.

Johnson said Solseth, like the other 17 students in the inaugural class, passed the orientation workshop.

After the first year of study, students earn certificates of completion and are qualified to enter the workforce as a technician. But they will be encouraged to spend a second year, to receive associate in applied science degrees. Many companies require the two-year degree.

Strong demand

The North Dakota Public Service Commission is projecting a need for at least 180 wind energy technicians by 2012 to maintain the turbines. Wages for wind energy technicians currently range from $16 to $25 per hour.

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Funding for the Lake Region program came from the Legislature and from grants.

The college plans to build its own wind tower by the fall of 2010, according to Johnson. It also is partnering with NextEra Energy, which operates the Langdon Wind Energy Center.

"Because a wind turbine can be a dangerous and challenging environment in which to work, the goal of our program here is to train students how to work safe and smart," Johnson said.

The first two-year course hasn't even officially begun and officials at Lake Region already are talking about expansion. The program has a waiting list of potential students.

'Biggest rush'

Johnson knows the wind turbine business.

He has a bachelor's degree in industrial technology and a master's degree in communications from UND. After several years in the newspaper business, including a stint at the Minot Daily News, he became a technician at the Langdon facility when it opened 18 months ago.

"It was, without a doubt, the most interesting thing I've ever done," he said.

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When Lake Region decided to start a wind energy program, Johnson was recommended for the teaching job. He jumped at the chance.

"I'm an instructor," he said, "but I like it here. The good thing is I still get to climb."

"If you like technology or machinery, it's a pretty awesome job," he said.

Solseth said he wondered what it would be like to work on the towers as he has driven past them over the past couple of years. But that curiosity was nothing compared with Friday's experience.

"Climbing out on the hub is the biggest rush," he said. "It's awesome."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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