Dangling from a harness at a dizzy height to fix a wind turbine is certainly for the brave. But for 18 aspiring wind-turbine specialist technicians in Cape Town, it’s soon to become part of daily life. Judging by their exuberance at their recent graduation ceremony, they’re raring to go.
The young graduates were awarded their certificates at the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (SARETEC) in Cape Town after completing five months of theory and two months on a wind-energy farm. Many have been offered jobs on wind farms, where they’ll ultimately be responsible for servicing, maintaining and repairing wind turbines and for managing the electrical and mechanical wind-turbine operations.
For them, it’s a resoundingly fresh career. Many come from rural areas and have artisan qualifications from technical colleges. Their work experience ranges from being in the navy to working in the aviation field. It’s a dream come true, one of the budding technicians told me. He can’t wait to be immersed in this exciting new career.
Their graduation was symbolic of the changes in the energy sector, with young people catapulted into learning new skills in renewable energy in Africa and across the world. For millennials globally, it’s clearly a career of the future. According to the US Department of Labour, wind-turbine technician is the fastest-growing occupation in the US. Wind power employs 1.2 million people globally, making it one of the most rapidly expanding industrial segments in the world.
In South Africa, until a few years ago, the industry was dominated by technicians from Europe. But skills development has changed this. SARETEC, set up by the Department of Higher Education and Training, has directly and indirectly trained about 100 wind-turbine technicians, and also offers courses across the spectrum of renewable energy. The German government as well as German and Danish companies in particular have helped boost local skills in the sector. Despite the impasse on the power purchase agreements that form part of bid window four of South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement programme, renewable energy players say they’re optimistic about the future. Skills development in the solar-energy industry is picking up, with short and long courses offered for solar PV service technicians. Demand is strong for the rooftop residential market in particular, as progressive municipalities encourage users to become more independent of the grid. Training is being aligned with this too.
With a move towards more sustainable energy, African universities are also sharpening and shifting their curricula. There’s an increased focus on developing skills for industries such as biogas, gas and nuclear.
The energy landscape is set to change in the years ahead, in tune with a move towards cutting CO2 emissions. People will need to be adaptable and learn to transfer their skills within the energy sector and across the skills value chain. More importantly, African countries must introduce their own training programmes, whether at university or technical level, to provide skills for locals.
The Cape Peninsula University of Technology, for example, has recognised a gap, and is planning to introduce a four-year bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering in 2019. Many companies, especially in West Africa, send their staff to the UK to study petroleum engineering. The university is hoping to attract students from many African countries, including Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. The focus will be on oil and gas, including petroleum prospecting, drilling and engineering.
This skills-thirsty energy sector is set for change, and being prepared to adapt and learn fast will be key. It can be scary, as a newbie wind technician will tell you after the first time they’ve looked down from the top of a wind tower. But being part of the change will be rewarding for the continent.