Ashlyn Curtis gathers her hammer and power tools and secures her harness. Altogether, Curtis suits up with almost 20 lbs. of equipment on her body before she looks up and begins to climb.
Her goal: to reach the top of a 300 ft. vertical wind turbine located in the farming country of southwestern Minnesota and repair the power cell on top. The turbine is one of dozens that comprise a wind farm, one of the many wind farms that are being built throughout the state of Minnesota.
“Working on wind power is something I never imagined that my career in construction would lead me to,” Curtis said. “It’s a surreal experience being able to learn skills for my career and practice them on Minnesota’s new energy projects.”
Curtis is finishing her second of four years as an apprentice with the Ironworkers Union Local 512. She represents the future of Minnesota union construction workers who will change the state’s energy landscape through planning, building and maintaining renewable energy sites.
“I think I will forever remember when I was out on the side of one of these tall turbines and the foreman said to me, ‘Are you afraid of heights?’ I said ‘no’ and he pointed to the top of the turbine and said, ‘let’s see you climb,’” Curtis recalled. “It’s hard work, you’re gripping tightly to the bars and climbing vertically hundreds of feet into the air.”
Curtis has confidently climbed multiple wind turbines since her first on-site opportunity. She’s not afraid of looking down — or changes in weather.
“Climbing when it’s windy is a whole other type of feeling, its stomach churning and sometimes dizzying,” Curtis said. “But on clear days, it’s beautiful, you can see for miles and look over the entire worksite, it’s a powerful feeling.”
Worksites for apprentices such as Curtis pose a well-rounded experience for sharing industry knowledge and learning from other construction professionals. Thousands of Minnesota’s 70,000 union construction professionals representing 15 trades work on energy sites across the state and advocate for accessible and cost-affordable energy.
“I worked with 20 to 25 experienced ironworkers on wind farm projects and I’m proud that I can learn alongside them and represent the future of construction professionals who will build Minnesota’s clean energy landscape,” Curtis said. “I also worked alongside other teams of construction workers to complete the reenergizing process. It’s been an incredible learning experience.”
A Career Switch and New Knowledge
Curtis grew up in Duluth, Minnesota where she graduated from cosmetology school. After three moves with her family to Texas, South Dakota, Minnesota and finally to Menomonie, Wisconsin, Curtis knew she had to find a career that was always in demand despite her location.
“I first noticed the demand for construction trades workers when we moved to Texas and my husband, a boilermaker, found work right away,” Curtis said. “While I didn’t pursue that trade, my dad was a union ironworker in Duluth, Minnesota, so I decided to seek out a new education path — an apprenticeship where I get paid to learn a new skill set for my future job.”
For Curtis, choosing to go into the construction trades has been a perfect fit.
“You may not think of it right away but cosmetology school, hair dressing – that’s all hands-on work and so is construction,” Curtis said. “The ability to work with your hands — build, create, make — that’s not a skill that only men have — a lot of people have that skill, they just have never explored work opportunities that use it.”
Highlights of Curtis’ apprenticeship training have been to learn how to rig, weld and signal cranes.
“I think back to high school when I took a woodshop class and enjoyed it,” Curtis said. “That girl is proud of where I am today.”
About the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council
Representing 70,000 skilled union construction professionals working in 15 trades, the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council (www.mntrades.org) is focused on growing a diverse and inclusive construction industry workforce, protecting the physical and financial health of construction workers, and advocating for increased public and private investment in construction and infrastructure.