One man in the classroom earned more than $100,000 framing tract homes during the building heyday. Another installed pools and piloted a backhoe. Behind him sat a young father who made a good living swinging a hammer.
But that was before construction jobs vanished. Hard times have brought them to a classroom to learn a different trade. Tonight's lesson: how to avoid death and dismemberment.
This is Wind Technology Boot Camp at a local Community College, where eight weeks of study and $1,000 in tuition might lead to a job repairing mammoth wind turbines.
The work requires smarts and stamina. It is potentially dangerous. Candidates need good knees, a cool head -- and a stomach for heights.
"I've seen guys just freeze halfway up the tower," said the instructor. For those who can hack it, starting pay ranges from $15 to $20 an hour. Crack technicians can make six figures a year. Wind farms are hiring and probably will be for years to come.
As in previous recessions, this economic downturn is boosting enrollment at community colleges and vocational schools. Classrooms are swelling with workers from hard-hit industries who are looking to change careers.
Educators say the difference this time is the surging interest in so-called green-collar jobs. President Obama wants to create 5 million of them over the next decade. What isn't clear is how the U.S. is going to prepare this work force.
Technical education for renewable-energy workers is scarce, particularly for the fast-growing wind industry. Only a handful of wind programs operate in community colleges.
The U.S. last year surpassed Germany as the world's No. 1 wind-powered nation, with more than 25,000 megawatts in place. Wind could supply 20% of America's electricity needs by 2030, up from less than 1% now, according to a recent Energy Department report.
California is the No. 3 wind state, behind Texas and Iowa. A slew of developments are in the pipeline. The economic crisis has dampened growth in the renewable sector. But the U.S. wind industry is clamoring for skilled technicians to maintain the 30,000 wind turbines already in the ground. The best workers combine the knowledge of a top-flight mechanic with the endurance of an alpine mountaineer.
"It's like [working on] a school bus on top of a really long pole," said a marketing manager for sensing and inspection technologies for General Electric Co., one of the world's top turbine makers. "It's complex. This isn't some Jiffy Lube job." A typical 1.5-megawatt GE unit costs $2.5 million installed. It sits about 30 stories above the ground at the hub, where its three 100-foot-long blades connect to the tower.
Just behind the hub is the housing for the gearbox, drive train and other components. Think of this as the wind technician's office. Except there's no elevator. Reaching it means climbing rung by rung on a narrow steel ladder attached to the inside of the tower. An agile worker can do it in less than 10 minutes, several times a day. "You earn every dollar you make in this industry. It's plain hard work."
Advice to hopefuls: Quit smoking. Lose that gut. And don't try this with a hangover. Technicians must be hyper-vigilant in an occupation that combines dizzying heights, tight spaces, high-voltage electricity and spinning metal. Fatalities are rare but unspeakably gruesome. Workers have plunged to their deaths, been electrocuted and been ground to a pulp by rotating machinery.