“I said, ‘I see windmills,’ and everyone kind of gave me a strange look.” Vicky Sloan, a humanities professor at Clinton Community College, which serves a rural region in upstate New York, is describing a “visualization” session with a touchy-feely outside consultant, forced on the faculty several years ago by the administration. The consultant had asked the professors to close their eyes and picture their institution’s future. “It was so Dilbert,” interjects Sloan’s close friend June Foley, a professor who teaches psychology at the college. “It was!” agrees Sloan, who lives off the grid, in a log cabin, with her own power generator. “But when I closed my eyes, that’s what I saw.”
Less than an hour north of campus, along the Canadian border, real wind turbines perform a slow ballet dance over the snow-covered farmland. The windmills look at once gleamingly futuristic and as if they’ve always belonged there. The landscape is rapidly darkening on this overcast mid-afternoon in December–another snowstorm is expected–but even the most distant turbines can be seen easily, like guiding beacons. Wind farms have become a symbol of clean energy–feel-good iconography used by every liberal entity from The Rachel Maddow Show to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But here in the Plattsburgh region, they also represent jobs.
Clinton County–part of what is called the North Country–has endured much upheaval in recent years. Plattsburgh Air Force Base–the oldest military post in the nation–closed in 1995 and has been turned into an industrial park, occupied by a mix of biotech, pharmaceutical, engineering and other companies. The area’s many small farmers struggle, like small farmers everywhere. Manufacturing jobs have been gradually ebbing. But the North Country is one of the windiest spots in the nation and thus has become a thriving Gold Coast for the wind industry, with five wind farms producing a total of 690 megawatts of clean energy.
Like many two-year college teachers–who don’t enjoy the salary or prestige that many of their counterparts at four-year colleges do–the faculty at Clinton Community College have long taken seriously their civic duty to prepare students for the best jobs the local economy can offer. While faculty members like Sloan envisioned a role for the college in the region’s wind industry, it was Janice Padula, an environmental science professor and hard-working Democratic Party activist, who made it happen. Working with regional economic development officials, the wind industry and relevant technical experts at the college, she established a wind technician training program to prepare students for the wind industry’s most permanent jobs: troubleshooting and maintaining the turbines. The program’s first students began in January, as Barack Obama took office. The timing couldn’t be better: several of the students have arrived fresh from recession trauma, having just been laid off from FedEx or Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.