'Brave New Workers': A Texas Cowboy Finds Fortune In The Wind

Apr 9, 2017
Originally published on June 14, 2017 8:17 pm

Growing up on the plains of West Texas, Lanny Copeland says there weren't too many options for a young man looking to make a living.

"If you weren't a farmer," Copeland says, "chances were pretty good you were in the oil field."

But from early on, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up — to follow in his father's footsteps as a cowboy and ranch manager.

"You felt like you were a part of history," Copeland says, "taking part in the great Texas cattle industry."

After studying range land management and animal husbandry at Texas A&M, Copeland spent years wrangling cattle for other owners, until one day in the mid-1990s he and his father were offered the opportunity to buy out part of their boss' herd, to begin a business of their very own.

"To have something of our own was the greatest feeling in the world to me," says Copeland. "And I think to Daddy as well, cause he had developed this herd of cattle, and he had managed this land for so long."

For 10 years, things went well for the Copelands. Despite intermittent seasons of low rainfall, they managed to keep their herd healthy, and their operation afloat. But in the mid-2000s, a prolonged drought finally proved too much.

"Even with the best herd you can put together," Copeland says, "if the weather doesn't cooperate and the drought doesn't break, at some point, it doesn't matter."

Copeland and his father were forced to cut their losses and sell off their remaining cattle and equipment.

"I found myself at 44 years old, really wondering what in the world am I going to do now," he says, "because this is pretty much all I've ever done."

For months, Copeland struggled to find a new line of work, hoping to secure a new means of supporting a daughter in college and a son in junior high. Until one day, in the late winter of 2008, Copeland came across a notice for a wind energy job fair, hosted by a power company called Invenergy, at a Lubbock, Texas, hotel. Copeland thought he might be one of five or six attendees, and decided to give it a shot.

Instead, Copeland says he found a room packed with over a hundred prospective applicants, many of them decades younger than him.

"I felt pretty old in that room because there were a lot of 25-year-old guys with applications in their hands," Copeland says.

Nevertheless, he submitted his application and hoped for the best. Not too long afterwards, he received a call from a hiring manager, inviting him to visit one of the company's facilities for an aptitude test and to take a mandatory climb test. When the manager asked about whether he would be able to climb one of the towering turbines, he says he was honest about his misgivings.

"I remember telling him, 'I have no idea if I can do it,' " says Copeland, "didn't like heights much anyway and said, 'yeah, we'll see.' "

Sure enough, when he arrived, the task seemed daunting. "That was the longest ladder I'd ever seen in my life," he says.

In the end, Copeland made it easily to the top of his first wind turbine, and when he did, he says he found a beautiful landscape waiting below. Looking out over an expanse of rolling ranch lands, sprinkled with wind turbines, Copeland says he knew that he had found something worth pursuing.

"I remember thinking — 'not many people have ever done this,' " says Copeland.

Copeland passed that turbine climbing test, and now, nine years later, he works as an Operations and Maintenance Manager for Invenergy, overseeing two wind farms and 27 wind turbine technicians in Texas.

Copeland says he was lucky to find his way into the Texas wind industry when he did. Texas currently produces the most wind energy of any state in the country, and earlier this year "wind turbine technician" was named the fastest growing job in the U.S. economy by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As for Lanny Copeland, he says he's striking a balance between his old professional identity and his new one.

"Do I still see myself as a cowboy?" Copeland asks. "Yeah, I do. And I hope I always do." Still, Copeland says, he's thrilled to have found a new life for himself in the booming Texas wind industry.

"It's the future," he says. "Wind energy is the future."

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Now it's time for another installment in our series Brave New Workers. That's where we hear from people who are charting new paths in a changing economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I was a underground coal miner. Now I'm in paramedic school.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Free porn has completely killed the industry as we know it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The black market is filled with people of color just like the prison that I was in.

MARTIN: This week's story comes from Lubbock, Texas. Ever since he was a little kid growing up in West Texas, Lanny Copeland knew that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps as a cowboy and ranch manager. He says it was never about the money.

LANNY COPELAND: Cowboys historically don't make much money. I remember my first ranch job. I was making probably eleven or $1,200 a month. Of course, that comes with a house, and, you know, all the beef you can eat. But it's not a whole bunch of money coming into your checking account every month.

MARTIN: Just like his father, Lanny Copeland spent much of his career wrangling cattle for other owners until finally in the mid-'90s, Copeland and his dad were given the opportunity to fulfill their lifelong dream of buying out their bosses and running an operation all their own.

COPELAND: To have something of our own, I think, was, man, the greatest feeling in the world to me. And I think to daddy as well because he developed this herd of cattle, and he had managed this land for so long. And then to have an opportunity to go in there and take that same country and cattle and make a run at it, I think was one of the greatest, most exciting times in my life. To be honest, the odds are stacked against you pretty big, so I was scared to death. Daddy probably was, too, but he didn't let me see if he was. And we did learn, you know, that even with the best herd you can raise, man, if the weather didn't cooperate, it may not matter.

Ten, 11 years in, we went through a pretty serious drought where it just never hardly rained. I think one of the hardest things of watching a ranch go through a drought is watching your cattle lose weight. Everyone suffers, you know, from the cattle to the cowboys to the owners - everything suffers some. I remember a lot of days just, you know, hoping to see a thunderhead pop up in the Southwest. And I don't know how many times those storms would pop up in those hot early summer days. And you could see it raining 10 miles away, and it looked like it was moving toward you, and, man, it would hit your fence line and all of a sudden just dissipate. And, man, it would break your heart.

The writing on the wall - I remember very well I didn't want to face it because, man, this was my dream, you know? And this is my dad's dream, but we started selling off everything that we could sell off. I found myself at 44 years old really wondering what in the world am I going to do now? Because this was pretty much all I've ever done.

Sometime in late winter of '08 - came across an ad that was talking about a job fair for wind energy. I though, well, I'm just going to go check that out. You know, I might be one of five or six people there, and this could be a good thing. So I showed up, and there were about 140 guys all packed into a little room, all interested in wind energy, and I felt pretty old in that room because there were a lot of 25-year-old guys with applications in their hand. And I started thinking about, well, I'm not sure about this. I remembered in my interview a guy saying what do you think about climbing these towers? You know, I mean, you think you're going to be able to do that? And I remember telling him I'll try, and I'll do everything I can, but I'm going to tell you straight up I have no idea if I can do it. Didn't like heights much anyway, and I said, yeah, we'll see.

So I remember going out, and they handed us all a harness, and we put it on and went to a turbine and that was the longest ladder I'd ever seen in my life. First thing they did when we got to the top of the turbine was open that hatch up, you know, stepping up onto the main shaft, immediately, I mean, the first thing that struck me was, man, you can see for miles up here. And we happened to be climbing the turbine that was situated in a pasture on some ranch land.

So to me it was like, man, that - I've never seen, you know, ranch country from this perspective before. And you can see, you know, turbines for miles. You can see farmland for miles. You can see people driving down county roads and highways miles away, the wind kind of blowing. I remember thinking that not very many people have ever done this. This is the future. I mean, wind energy is the future. I had a really strong feeling once that climb test was done that this was really something that I could do.

MARTIN: Lanny Copeland did pass that wind turbine climb test. Now he oversees two wind farms and 27 wind technicians in West Texas. Earlier this year, wind turbine technician was named the fastest growing job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lanny Copeland spoke to us for our series Brave New Workers about people adapting to a changing economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.