Tom Sutton’s strenuous days are fueled by caffeine and his passion for the
field of wind energy. As Kalamazoo Valley’s Director of Wind Energy and
Technical Services, he is almost always thinking about work. He studied aircraft
engineering and earned an automotive engineering degree from Western
Michigan University. He then went to and work for Harold Zeigler Lincoln/Mercury as a Senior Master Technician, and later worked with Ford Field Engineering. He taught at WMU as an adjunct engineering faculty member before coming to Kalamazoo Valley 11 years ago.
Sutton enjoys the hectic pace and multitude of tasks that fall under his command. “I work with a great team,” Sutton said. “There are always going to be aspects of every job that we like or don’t like, but I’m happy as long as I’ve got a good team. I enjoy working with the team we have assembled and I enjoy problem solving.” In addition to his roles as an administrator and trainer for Kalamazoo Valley’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy (WTTA), Sutton is a senior trainer for Wisconsin-based ENSA (Experts in Work-at-Height Rescue Training), the nation’s premier at-heights training organization. He travels internationally to train other wind energy trainers. He is also on the steering committee for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and is active with the Workforce Development and chair of the Operations and Maintenance subcommittee.
Internationally, Sutton is a member of the International Technical Committee where he works to develop the international training standards for worker’s safety.
Sutton recently took four of his students to the American Wind Energy Association’s Wind Power on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The two-day trip was a rare opportunity for the group to participate in advocacy training and then put that training to work to educate legislators and their staff on the wind industry’s top policy initiatives at both the state and federal level. All of these connections help strengthen Kalamazoo Valley’s WTTA program, Sutton says.
“We have become recognized as the go-to safety trainer whenever someone needs advice,” Sutton said. “Our graduates are highly sought after.”
Kalamazoo Valley’s WTTA program is the nation’s leading training program for wind turbine technicians. Focused on specific, hands-on competencies, the unique training model moves students from the classroom to the learning labs and into the field quickly. The non-credit, full-time program allows graduates to be job-ready in less than six months. Students attend Monday through Friday, eight hours each day for 24 weeks. They also take turns as the on-call technician to accompany a wind instructor to the turbines if a fault should occur on a weekend.
Because he’s in constant contact with the six turbines the program operates and maintains, and the wind turbine manufacturers in Germany and Denmark, Sutton starts his day by checking in at 4 a.m. “I start by checking emails and overnight fault logs,” Sutton said. He starts early to account for the six-hour time difference. By 6:30 a.m., he’s in his office at Kalamazoo Valley’s Groves Center where he has to check in with the turbine owners and update them on overnight production and any problems encountered. When he’s not on site or in the office, he’s always available through his cell phone which includes an international calling plan.
Sutton says he’s careful not to micromanage and does what he can to troubleshoot for his team, adding that the program runs smoothly because everyone is cross-trained. “Everyone has to be able to do everything at some common basic level, otherwise we just come to a grinding halt,” he said. Still, Sutton is the only staff member who is trained in all areas. To remain current, he maintains 37 different certifications or licenses and also spends eight weeks in the field training WTTA students at Michigan wind farms in Mackinaw, Traverse City and McBain.
On top of his Kalamazoo Valley duties, Sutton is an on-call firefighter with the Kalamazoo Township Fire Department. “Any time I’m not here or out in the field training, it’s expected that I respond to calls by pager,” he explained.
Because his work life is so demanding, Sutton and his wife Michelle, a legal assistant, always set aside time for riding their Harley Davidson motorcycles and vacationing in the Caribbean. Sutton can’t imagine slowing down. “I’ll stay as long as I’m having fun and being challenged. I like the development process and I just want to make a difference.”