SWEETWATER — Sitting in the football stadium bleachers of his West Texas high school, Steven Vasquez used to look past the flatlands and watch the wind turbines spin. Even after kickoff, he would stay entranced by the red lights atop the turbines, blinking like a heartbeat.

“I was always fascinated about how they generate so much electricity just by the power of the wind,” Vasquez said. “And then I found out that I can study them even more, I can really see how they’re built and how everything works on the inside.”

The ever-present sight of turbines near his school became the infancy of Vasquez’s dream to work in the wind energy industry. He graduated from a small public high school in Sterling City, where wind companies used to dole out $4,500 in college scholarships to students for every year they were in the school district. Vasquez, 19, is now in his second semester at the Texas State Technical College campus in Sweetwater learning how to become a wind turbine technician.

Here on the eastern edge of the Permian Basin, stable paychecks and the chance to travel draw young people like Vasquez into the wind industry. And once Vasquez secures his associate’s degree in wind energy technology, he knows he has a good shot of finding a job in the field after college.

But qualified candidates like Vasquez are hard to come by. TSTC is the only school in the state that offers a wind technician program developed in close collaboration with wind energy firms. Colleges in other parts of the state told The Texas Tribune they haven’t seen enough interest from students in their areas to start their own wind-focused training programs. TSTC alone cannot churn out enough graduates to keep up with the wind industry’s growth — wind companies in Texas are expected to need about 700 more wind service turbine technicians by the end of next year.

Texas leaders have publicly committed to creating pipelines for Texans to join well-paying, high-demand fields, but the state has done little to funnel more young people into wind energy jobs. Political backing for the wind sector has waned in recent years as Texas Republicans have rushed to prop up the oil and gas industry. Notably, state lawmakers ended a program last year that gave wind companies a tax break in exchange for making investments in local schools, giving them a chance to introduce the idea of a career in the wind industry early in students’ lives.

Without state help, the wind energy companies have taken matters into their own hands, developing their own in-house training programs and visiting high schools to drum up students’ interest in wind. But it’s unclear if the sector can overcome on its own the lack of political support and widespread training that workforce development experts say are needed to connect young Texans with the wind-related jobs of tomorrow.

Texas State Technical College students prepare for a class as job seekers attend a job fair Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Abilene.
Texas State Technical College students attend a job fair in Abilene on March 6. Employers in the wind energy industry, which has seen explosive growth in the past 20 years, are looking to win over students and get more people into the sector. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
Left: Recruiters speak to job seekers during the job fair hosted by Texas State Technical College in Abilene. Right: NextEra Wind Site Manager Gus Saunders shakes hands with a job seeker during the job fair.
Left: Recruiters speak to job seekers during a job fair hosted by Texas State Technical College in Abilene. Right: NextEra Wind Site manager Gus Saunders shakes hands with a job seeker during the job fair. Credit: Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

A race to hire

“If you start with us, you can retire with us.”

“Eight years and I’ve never missed a paycheck.”

Gus Saunders spoke without breaking eye contact with West Texas students at a job fair in Abilene on a hot, humid Wednesday in March, giving them his best arguments to get them to work at the state’s wind farms.

Saunders is part of a wave of Texans in the oil-rich Permian Basin who made the jump from oil and gas to wind energy in the last decade. He was drawn to the burgeoning renewable energy industry because of the stability in pay. It was a sharp contrast to life in the oil fields, where salaries fluctuate based on the price of the oil barrel. Starting salaries for wind technicians are about $47,000 a year, and people in the field can make up to $90,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

He told the students he worked his way up to manage a multibillion-dollar wind project, and they could too.

Vasquez had initially planned to stay close to his family in Midland for college; his mother wanted him to attend the local community college. But Midland College does not offer a program in wind energy.

“I didn’t really find anything there that I really wanted to do. So I just came over here,” said Vasquez, who lives in an apartment on campus. “I always just go [visit] whenever I can.”

Nearly every student in TSTC’s wind energy program moved to Sweetwater from other parts of the state and now lives in the dorms. The school has room for more students, but moving away from home elsewhere in Texas to get an associate’s degree is not an option for everyone.

In the absence of robust job training across the state, some wind energy companies offer their own in-house job training programs to close the workforce gap. Invenergy will hire students right out of high school and put them on a six-year apprenticeship track, giving them training while they work out in the field, Schroeder said.

But wind companies say it takes more time to bring a new hire with no experience up to speed, a heavier lift in an industry that is already overburdened and urgently needs qualified staff.

When an industry grows at the rate that wind energy has in recent years, community colleges have usually positioned themselves to create programs to respond to those job needs. But Texas community colleges have little appetite for expanding training in renewable energy.

Texas State Technical College Wind Energy Technology student Steven Vasquez poses for a photo Tuesday, March 5, 2024 in Sweetwater.
Steven Vasquez is in his second semester at the Texas State Technical College campus in Sweetwater, learning how to become a wind turbine technician. The wind industry gave Vasquez and other Sterling City High School graduates $4,500 in college scholarships for every year they were in the school district. “That town makes a little bit too much money from all the wind farms in the area,” Vasquez laughed. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
First: Texas State Technical College Wind Energy Technology instructor Russell Benson, left, helps students during a lab on inductors on March 5, 2024, in Sweetwater. Last: Students Shayne Howard, left, and Steven Vasquez work together to troubleshoot a logic gate while assembling a circuit.
First: Texas State Technical College wind energy technology instructor Russell Benson, left, helps students during a lab class in Sweetwater on March 5. Last: Students Shayne Howard, left, and Steven Vasquez work together to troubleshoot a logic gate while assembling a circuit. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Ten years ago, Western Texas College in Snyder tried to create an academic wind energy program. The college set out to do “their part to prepare qualified workers in this industry” with an associate’s degree in wind energy. They teamed up with Texas Tech University in Lubbock so students would have an option to transfer and get a bachelor’s degree in renewable energy.

The program did not last. Low enrollment, coupled with the departure of its lead instructor, led to the program shutting down, according to Stephanie Ducheneaux, the dean of instructional affairs at Western Texas College.

“We didn’t get the interest that we thought we would get,” she said. “We just weren’t getting enough students enrolling in those classes. And therefore we basically lost the use of those unique courses that we had to have.”

Even now, Ducheneaux said the college doesn’t feel like they have enough interest to restart the program.

Western Texas was part of a wave of community colleges across the country that tried to develop a wind-focused program but shut down because of low enrollment, said Jeremy Stefek, a workforce researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Schools then pivoted to creating “industrial maintenance” programs, which cross-trained students in skills related to both wind and solar energy.

In Texas, Clarendon College in the Panhandle and South Plains College offer these industrial maintenance programs. But the wind industry has long struggled to establish relationships with the colleges that offer these programs, Stefek said.

One wind energy recruiter told the Tribune that firms have a definite “favoritism” toward wind technicians who graduate from TSTC. Wind energy employers work closely with TSTC in shaping the curricula, so recruiters know students will have the skills they need.

Wind companies are making some efforts to reach students beyond Sweetwater — but it might be harder without help from the state.

RWE Site Lead Justin Shaw poses for a photo Wednesday, March 6, 2024 in Roscoe. Shaw has moved his way up as a technician in the wind energy industry through multiple different companies and has seen a shift in culture and educational focus change around him.
RWE site lead Justin Shaw poses for a photo in Roscoe on March 6. Shaw learned many of the skills he needed on the job. Job training has formalized as the industry has grown. “I didn’t know how to read schematics, and [two technicians on the team] sat down with me in the truck one night,” he said. “They showed me the flow. Now, RWE Energy, we have our own schematics training.” Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Building a dream of wind

The high school students only had cardboard, tape and styrofoam to work with. The challenge: to build a functioning wind turbine.

Students of all ages come from as far as Floydada to compete in the local KidWind Challenge, which RWE Clean Energy and TSTC started up in Sweetwater two years ago. Once they’re done building, the competition’s judges test their makeshift turbines in a wind tunnel.

Wind technicians like Justin Shaw help the teams of students with their projects. He uses the opportunity to introduce them to the idea of a future in the wind industry.

“You don’t have to go to a big four-year-school,” Shaw tells the students. “You can go to TSTC down the road…They’re going to get you all the knowledge you need and all the exposure you need to set you up for success.”

Wind energy companies learned the benefits of working closely with schools to bring students into the field thanks to a now-defunct tax break program.

For 20 years, wind energy companies flourished in Nolan County and across Texas largely through the Chapter 313 program, which allowed companies to apply to get a 10-year discount on school property taxes in exchange for creating new jobs in the regions they settled into. Most of the companies that participated in the program belonged to the wind energy industry, and for years they made direct payments to schools across the state.

The resulting footprint that wind companies built in Sweetwater and the surrounding counties shaped area students’ career expectations.

The $18,000 Vasquez got for college was part of a deal Sterling City High School struck with a wind energy company through the tax incentive program. Vasquez said the scholarship was an early signal to him that “wind wasn’t going anywhere.”

Wind turbines are seen Monday, March 4, 2024 outside of Sweetwater.
The now-defunct Chapter 313 program allowed wind energy companies to receive tax benefits in exchange for creating new jobs in the regions they settled into. With the program expired, wind energy companies must now try to pique students’ interest in the industry without help from the state. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune
Left: Discarded blades from wind turbines sit stacked in a field with other scrap on March 4, 2024, in Sweetwater. Right: RWE Site Lead Justin Shaw introduces local students to the idea of a future in the wind industry in the region.
Left: Discarded blades from wind turbines sit stacked in a field with other scrap in Sweetwater on March 4. Right: RWE site lead Justin Shaw at a wind farm in Roscoe. Shaw has moved his way up as a technician in the wind energy industry through multiple different companies and has seen a shift in culture and educational focus around him. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

For the Blackwell Consolidated School District, in the southern tip of Nolan County, money through the Chapter 313 agreement meant seventh graders got new iPads. Students began to associate wind energy with money at the same time they were learning algebra.

But state legislators replaced Chapter 313 last year, after the program drew ire for a lack of oversight. Critics said schools that negotiated direct payments through the Chapter 313 program got an unfair advantage at a time when districts are clamoring for more state funding. And since the state made up for any revenue public schools lost from the tax breaks, critics said Chapter 313 translated to less money for other state services.

new tax incentive, the Texas Jobs Energy, Technology and Innovation program, is an effort from lawmakers to respond to the critics. It institutes new job creation and salary requirements and offers half the amount of tax breaks as the old program. Crucially, renewable energy companies and battery power storage projects are all excluded from participating in the new tax break.

The move to exclude wind from the tax incentive is reflective of an increasingly hostile political climate against the industry in the state. In the aftermath of the 2021 winter storm that left millions of Texans without power, Republican leaders found a scapegoat in renewable energy. Gov. Greg Abbott called wind and solar generation an unreliable source of power in times of crisis. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in the middle of the storm “we should never build another wind turbine in Texas.”

Texas Republicans in the Capitol saw the rise of wind energy as a threat to the power of oil and gas in the state. Lobbyists for oil and gas companies were also telling legislators they needed to be able to make more money in the state’s electricity market. So as the state shut wind energy companies out of a corporate tax break, they propped up gas-fueled power generators. For instance, a new law gives oil and gas companies low- or zero-interest loans when they modernize existing plants or build new ones.

Wind energy companies must now act alone, without the help of the state, when trying to pique students’ interest. But an industry is in a better position to do so when it has the political backing of the state’s leaders, who have started to see robust workforce training as key to building a strong economy.

The Mustang Bowl is seen Monday, March 4, 2024 in Sweetwater.
Wind companies have built a footprint in Sweetwater and the surrounding counties, shaping area students’ career expectations. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Take the support the oil and gas industry has received for its workforce training.

Abbott — who has proclaimed himself “a champion of the oilfield” — vowed in the middle of last year’s legislative session to support more training programs to build the next generation of oil and gas workers.

“As the Legislature meets in Austin this session, we are ensuring Texas continues to defend this critical industry and protect the hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs it creates for Texans,” Abbott said at the time.

Last year, the governor awarded a grant to The Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement to help residents in the Rio Grande Valley get entry-level jobs in the liquid natural gas industry. And back in 2018, Abbott gave $500,000 to Kilgore College in East Texas to help oil and gas workers upgrade their skills. The state’s education agency has also teamed up with leading energy companies to teach skills to Texas high schoolers to work in the oil field.

The wind energy industry has received nowhere near that kind of support.

But that doesn’t discourage Billie Jones, an instructor at TSTC, from believing wind offers a lucrative future for her students.

“The wind is always going to blow and it’s always going to be free,” Jones said.

A pickup truck zipped into the school’s parking spot as Jones spoke, the volume of the music turned all the way up. She didn’t have to look up to know it was Eric, one of her students, and he was late to his morning lab.

“It’s almost like they’re your kids. You want them to have the best future,” she said.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Rural News Network, and the Cardinal NewsKOSUMississippi TodayShasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

Disclosure: Kilgore College, Texas Tech University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Reporter covering pathways from education to employment for the Texas Tribune in partnership with Open Campus.