The changing weather of weather careers

April 1, 2012

If you lived in Toronto in late winter 2012, you've experienced the March summer, and before that a summery sort of winter. In an earlier version of this article, it read: "Rain, snow, sun, wind, hot, cold: over the course of four seasons, Canada is subject to all of these weather elements and everything in between." That was what we wrote in 2010 when the seasons seemed to be relatively predictable. Still, what was true then remains: the weather is one of the favourite topics of conversation for Canadians. So have you ever wondered, though, how the weather can inspire a career? The following three careers are for brave souls who want to engage with whatever Mother Nature has to offer.

Meteorologists are scientists who study weather and climate. Although we often limit our understanding of meteorologists to our local TV station's "weather guy," there are a whole bunch of tasks that go under the radar in this profession.

Will this coming weekend be cloudy with a chance of showers, or warm and sunny? Meteorologists can provide the answer to that question as they study and forecast short-term weather patterns. Duties vary according to qualifications and the specific position but, overall, meteorologists analyze and interpret meteorological data (such as wind velocity, humidity and temperature) gathered from radar, satellites and other equipment.

But what about comparing this decade's weather with the last decade's? Meteorologists do that, too, often by specializing in climatology, the study of long-term weather and climate trends, including variations in weather over months, years or centuries. This involves measuring weather elements such as temperature and rainfall, calculating averages and then describing the climate of a particular area. This research can contribute to discussions about what happened this winter, in other words, climate and environment trends, such as global warming.

Work settings for meteorologists vary -- they may be monitoring equipment at a weather station in the Arctic tundra, doing field work in British Columbian rainforests, reporting for a local news station, or analyzing data in an office setting.

To pursue a career in meteorology, several educational routes can be taken. Generally, an undergraduate university degree with a focus on math and the physical sciences (astronomy, physics, chemistry and earth sciences) is advised. For those who hope to become radio or television weather forecasters, courses in communications or journalism are also recommended along with a science degree.

The department of earth and space science engineering at York University has an Atmospheric Science and Meteorology program where you can pursue a four-year honours bachelor degree in atmospheric science. You may also choose to study in the physics department at the University of Toronto so that you can hook up with their atmospheric physics group, which researches theoretical and experimental areas of atmospheric sciences. And what sort of research may you be involved with while pursuing your degree? According to the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanic Society, U of T “[l]aboratory facilities include an icing tunnel to study hailstone growth and melting, a doppler radar system to observe precipitation and a remote sensing laboratory. A ground station receives real time data from polar orbiting meteorological satellites.”

After attaining an undergraduate science degree, you can complete a certificate program in meteorology at York University. Advanced positions within this field often require a master's degree or a PhD in a branch of the physical sciences.

Many Canadian meteorologists work for the Meteorological Service of Canada, although some are employed by the military, radio and television broadcasters, and other private companies. Despite some cutbacks in government spending and hiring, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanic Society is optimistic about the outlook for meteorology jobs.

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Wind turbine technicians
If you've ever seen the damage a wind storm can produce, you know that the wind is a powerful force. Wind energy is one of the green energy initiatives being adopted by many countries around the world and, according to Invest in Canada, it is one of the world's largest producers of hydroelectricity (353 terra-watts per year). If you're looking for a way to be involved in the sustainable energy industry, consider a career as a wind turbine technician.

Wind turbine technicians assemble, maintain and repair wind turbine systems and components. They may work on wind farm construction, wind turbine manufacturing or turbine maintenance. It's a hands-on job that requires the ability to troubleshoot electrical and mechanical malfunctions, diagnose problems and repair equipment. Shift work and overtime are common in this line of work as is travel to various wind farm sites. You must be in good physical condition as the job requires heavy lifting at times. You must also be unafraid of heights, since technicians frequently climb to heights exceeding 60 metres.

The wind energy industry is growing rapidly in Canada. According to the Canadian Wind Energy Association, "Between now and 2020 it is estimated that $1 trillion will be invested in new wind energy facilities worldwide and that more than 1.75 million jobs will be created in this rapidly growing industry." Because the wind energy industry is still relatively new, training programs in Toronto are still somewhat scarce. At the moment, there are programs that provide a general background in energy systems, such as:

If you wish to be trained specifically as a wind turbine technician, you will have to travel outside of Toronto (for example, to St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario). Two other out-of-province, programs include the Industrial Maintenance Technology program at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles in Quebec or the Wind Turbine Technician Training program at Lethbridge College in Alberta.

Ontario is at the forefront of wind energy development in the country with a number of success stories in the clean technology area. Many recent developments suggest there are -- and will be -- many opportunities to work in this industry, for example the Feed in Tariff (FIT) program that's been designed to spur investment in renewable energy and create new jobs.

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Solar photovoltaic installers
Alongside wind energy, solar power is another hot renewable energy source. People who want to work on renewable energy projects might consider this industry. An interesting option may be becoming a solar photovoltaic (PV) installer.

A major component of the solar industry is the PV segment, which uses technology (usually solar panels) to convert energy from the sun into electricity. Solar PV installers are professionals who implement pre-designed plans by gathering materials and installing systems in commercial or residential buildings. The job involves several tasks, including interpreting drawings prepared by a solar designer, measuring and planning before installation, mounting the equipment, and troubleshooting when problems arise.

As a solar PV installer, you need to be physically fit and able to twist your body and lift heavy objects. You will often work within a team, so co-operation and collaboration skills are also necessary. Because this is a growing industry the desire to learn about emerging technologies and strategies is also important. It might be helpful to have knowledge or training in electrical engineering or the electrical trades before pursuing some of these solar PV training options. An interest in environmental issues and renewable energy sources is also a plus.

According to the Canada Solar Industries Association (CanSIA), by 2025, solar energy will be "widely deployed throughout Canada, having already achieved market competitiveness that removes the need for government incentives." The industry "will be supporting more than 35,000 jobs in the economy." According to this press release "Since launching the Green Energy Act in 2009, over $26 billion of private investment has been committed to Ontario and over 20,000 clean energy jobs have been created and the province is on track to create 50,000 clean energy jobs by the end of 2012."

There are various training opportunities for solar PV installers in Toronto:

Several types of renewable energy workshops are given by the Kortright Centre, including photovoltaic training courses such as Photovoltaic Generation, and Utility Connected PV Installation. Centennial Energy Institute's website lists an Aboriginal Training: Solar Energy - Photovoltaics course initiative and states that future advanced workshops for photovoltaics may take place if there is enough interest.

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