Justin E. Manley, a marine technology innovator for three decades, sees many interesting, well-compensated opportunities in the ocean-based or “blue” economy for people interested in hands-on, intellectual work. “There’s lots of roles that are a good fit,” he said.
Among the challenges for technical educators is the historically low visibility of the maritime sector, and the reality that maritime technicians must combine high-tech skills with the physical and mental capabilities to thrive at sea.
“Ocean technician jobs, whether they’re robotics or instruments or similar, there’s an added level of personal challenge involved, which could come from being sea sick. It could come from sleeping in a confined space. It could come from being surrounded by different types of people. It could be useful for faculty to help their students gain exposure to such stressors or challenges outside the normal academic elements of school. That’s going to help future technicians succeed,” Manley said during a recent Zoom interview.
Todd Colten, chief aerospace engineer and director of Flight Services at Sentera, envisions a “big revolution” in the aerospace industry as a result of advances in battery manufacturing infrastructure. Sentera is a global technology company that devises hardware and software to interface with precision agriculture equipment such as planters and fertilizer applicators.
“There’s a lot of thought that taking modern drone technology and electrification of aircraft — all of this will be a game changer,” he said.
Colten worked for startups and large aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin, Goodrich, and United Technologies Corporation prior to 2015 when he helped found Sentera, which offers products and services to farmers and agriculture researchers.
Sentera, a global technology company that devises hardware and software to interface with precision agriculture equipment such as planters and fertilizer applicators, employs three types of technicians:
engineering technicians who work in the Minnesota company’s lab to build prototypes of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), sensors, and cameras;
geospatial information system (GIS) technicians who create maps with layers of data; and
aerial imaging technicians who pilot UASs, also known as drones, in the field.
During a recent interview via Zoom, Todd Colten, Sentera’s chief aerospace engineer and director of Flight Services, discussed the rapid pace of change in agriculture technology and related industries, the skills he looks for when hiring technicians, and the attributes he anticipates UAS employers will be seeking in 10 years. Digital literacy is the answer to the last question, but the specific digital skills won’t be known for a few years when “some other new widget or some other new advanced capability” emerges.
“Everything is always changing,” he said, pointing to his company’s plan to add 30 GIS technicians to its current contingent of 15 by June to illustrate his point.
Alex Thomas’s enthusiasm for renewable energy and the technical skills he learned during the three-semester certificate program at Madison Area Technical College (Madison College) in Wisconsin helped him get a paid internship as a systems integration technician at SunPeak.
As an intern, the 25-year-old Thomas worked alongside John Schwarzmeier, the group leader for Systems Integration who is in charge of operations and maintenance on large solar energy systems. His work was going along fine in the fall of 2020 when Schwarzmeier learned Thomas had a background in graphic design and journalism, and had taught himself several software languages.
Those skills made him a good fit for the company’s Project Development Department. “He showed promise, and helped me out doing things in the field and got a little taste of all aspects of the business,” Schwarzmeier said of Thomas and the company’s decision to hire him for the team that interacts between sales and installations.
Since January 2021 when Thomas began as a full-time project development associate, he has learned the 3-D solar performance modeling software program HelioScope. He uses the program to create 3-D maps of buildings for graphic displays of energy usage, which the company includes in its solar energy system proposals.
As leader of the Systems Integration Group at SunPeak, John Schwarzmeier oversees the SunPeak teams that are responsible for the interconnection, commissioning and long-term reliable operation of customer systems. The company website states, “He is an expert in PV system Operations and Maintenance (O&M) and has advanced knowledge of system monitoring and reporting. John also leads customer education and training initiatives for installed systems.”
John Schwarzmeier, group leader of Systems Integration at SunPeak in Madison, Wisconsin, sees two sets of skills for solar technicians and the emergence of a third set of critical IT skills.
First, this is what he considers the “traditional” attributes for all solar technicians:
knowledge of electricity, circuits, solar energy, and the national electrical code;
understanding of the means and methods for installing solar energy systems;
fluency with construction terminology and tools;
experience with construction and job-site safety; and
a good work ethic.
The second set of skills is for forward-thinking individuals who want more advanced solar technician roles. They need to be able to use specialized tools such as global positioning systems (GPS), unmanned aircraft systems or drones, or special test equipment that is specific to the solar industry.