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Women in Wind Energy: Jeanna Walters

Jeanna Walters, graduating in 2009 with an AAS in Wind Energy Technology from Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas, is working hard to remove the barriers, both perceived and real, that keep women from seeking previously male-dominated careers. Her second passion is raising environmental awareness and helping people realize their own responsibility when it comes to the sustainability of the planet’s resources. She finds the fulfillment of these two goals in her studies as a wind energy technician. Prior to her CCCC studies, however, Walters had worked for many years in an office environment. In 1984 she started college to pursue a business degree. But marriage and children interrupted her goals, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she completed her degree at Kansas State University.

In the interim years, Walters had spent much time as the single mother of three boys heavily involved in the Boy Scouts of America. She became a First Aid and CPR certified instructor and also became certified as a climbing and rappelling instructor. Though she spent her workdays behind a desk, she loved being outdoors and longed for a career that would allow just that. Being a Scout leader had also heightened her environmental awareness. When she learned of CCCC ’s Wind Energy Technology program, she realized that here was a career that would bring all of her interests together.

Going back to college to finish a business degree had been somewhat of a challenge, Walters admitted, after so many years of not being in the study habit. Now Walters was faced not only with the discipline of study, but the newness of studying something completely foreign to her. “I am not a mechanically inclined person,” Walters said. “Each semester, there would be one class that I would look at with trepidation. Once it was electronics, and once it was mechanical systems. This last semester it was hydraulics.“This is different from anything I’ve ever done. But once I would get into the class and start learning, I would say, ‘This isn’t so bad. I can do this.’ It’s been funny to hear my kids ask me if I’ve done my homework. Sort of a retribution thing for all those years I asked them that, I guess.”

Like most career changers, Walter has not used certain skills she learned in high school and during her early college years in a long time. As a result, physics proved to be her most difficult subject. But this woman who looks forward to hanging off a wind turbine nacelle, 300 feet in the air, wasn’t about to let a little math scare her away from the career of which she has long dreamed. In fact, when it comes to her expectations for her future career, the sky is the limit. “Unless I have a fantastic job offer when I graduate,” said Walters, “I’m thinking about going on for an environmental engineering degree. I want to learn more about the environmental side of wind energy: land assessment, wildlife displacement and the after-effects of a wind farm. The more I learn about wind energy, the more jobs I see that are out there. Every day I think I’ve made up my mind which segment I want to go into, then I learn something new, and I think ‘No, maybe this is the way to go.’ So right now, I’m thinking about getting an environmental engineering degree at K State.”

Besides being within driving distance, Kansas State is also attractive to Walters because it has a chapter of Women in Engineering. Walters has made it a personal mission to raise women’s awareness of job opportunities within the wind energy sector, even going so far as to start a Kansas chapter of WoWE, Women of Wind Energy. WoWE was born in 2005 and is sponsored by Windustry, a nonprofit organization that “promotes progressive renewable energy solutions and empowers communities to develop and own wind energy as an environmentally sustainable asset,” according to the organization’s Web site found at WoWE is a volunteer-staffed, non-profit organization that has more than 500 members. As of June 2009, there are fifteen chapters throughout the U.S., one in Canada and has seen its first overseas chapter open. WoWE promotes women in wind energy, providing industry information, networking opportunities and job alerts. Since starting its Kansas chapter, WoWE’s members at CCCC have done presentations at local elementary and middle schools to help spread the word about wind energy. Walters wants children to understand that no matter what career they are interested in, it can be related to wind energy, as she and her classmates realized to an even greater degree at a recent wind energy conference held, of course, in the “Windy City” of Chicago.

Across the country where wind farms are established, emergency response teams are being retrained for confined space and high rope rescue. In certain areas, new highway accesses are being built in order to accommodate the larger trucks required to carry the turbine blades to the construction sites. “Some manufacturing facilities that were closing due to lack of demand have now been refurbished to make wind turbine components,” Walters said. “Whatever career you are interested in can be associated with wind. You want to be a nurse? Some wind farms have medical personnel on site. You want to drive a truck? Truck drivers are being retrained to drive the bigger rigs to carry turbine components.”

Walters said that the current demand for technicians is so high that companies are hiring people with little to no training to fill the void. Graduates of accredited schools, like Cloud County Community College are likely to find themselves one step ahead of those with no training. Walters sees an additional benefit from wind energy to colleges, as well. Classes at CCCC fill before the end of the semester and, in order to help fulfill the government’s goal of twenty percent renewable energy by 2030, schools like CCCC are finding grant money easier to access.

Even though she can see many benefits to a variety of industries and employees, in the end, one of Walter’s greatest desires is to see more women find job, and life, fulfillment within the wind energy sector. “At my school, out of seventy wind energy students, only three of us are women,” Walters said. “And no women have registered for the incoming freshman class next fall. I don’t think that’s because of the opposition to women being in a male-dominated field. We haven’t encountered much opposition from men. There isn’t really the intimidation factor today for women going into men’s areas like there used to be. Plus this is such a new field that it started after women had already broken into the historically male-dominated workforce.

“I think the problem is that this career is not being marketed to women, so we formed our chapter to get the word out there that this is a career where women can make a name for themselves professionally. It’s a career where they can make a place for themselves, not just monetarily, but ethically and morally. “This is not a government or big business thing. We are all responsible for the sustainability of our planet. Women have a natural fit in that because we are nurturers. This is an opportunity for women to excel. Women as a gender group have not been interested in mechanical fields, but this isn’t just electronics and mechanics. There is a whole wide-open field out there. Women need to jump on it.”

This profile is from TechCareers: Wind Energy by Mike Jones (TSTC Publishing, 2010) and is available online here as well as from all major book retailers.

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