Texas Rising March/April 2010 - Web exclusive

Power Line
Workers Needed

Comptroller’s training grant helps worker shortage

by Laylan Copelin

Sixty-eight people recently showed up at Austin Community College (ACC) on a freezing Saturday for what they hoped would be a first step towards a new career as power line workers.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs had notified the college just three weeks earlier that it would receive $105,000 to purchase equipment to train workers for the new program.

The equipment had not been purchased. The curriculum would not be finalized for five months.  And there was no time to advertise the new course of study.

But the electric industry, caught between the greening of the energy sector and the graying of its work force, couldn’t wait. Central Texas utility officials urged college officials immediately to begin pre-testing students and enrolling them in pre-requisites that would lead to line-worker certification.

“They couldn’t wait five more months,” says Hector Aguilar, chairman of ACC’s Electronics & Advanced Technologies Department. “They said, ‘You have to start now.’”

Training grants target high-demand jobs

The grant to Austin Community College was among 13 that the Comptroller’s office awarded in December during the first round of its $10 million Job Building Fund, which is to help public community colleges and technical schools purchase cutting-edge equipment to train students for high-demand careers.

The 13 colleges shared $2.26 million in the first round. The grants ranged from $52,445 to $250,000. Schools must provide matching funds in the form of cash, equipment, materials, supplies or personnel.

A second round is being awarded from the Job Building Fund this spring.

The Comptroller, through its State Energy Conservation Office, also is administering a similar $6 million federal stimulus grant.

The Energy Sector Training Grants also allow public community colleges and technical institutes to purchase equipment needed to train workers in the fields of energy efficiency, transportation efficiency and renewable energy.

Learn more about the Every Chance Job Building Fund opportunities for public community colleges and technical schools.

With borrowed equipment, college and utility officials tested the prospective students’ physical abilities to climb poles with 40-50 pounds of equipment and work 45 feet or higher above the ground. The 35 students who passed the physical test also must demonstrate an academic background that includes algebra.

In the midst of a recession, it’s good news that an industry needs workers for good-paying, secure jobs that include benefits. Trainees can start at $12-14 an hour and quickly move up, Aguilar says.

Pat Alba, Austin Energy’s director of administrative services, agrees: “It’s not unusual for a line person to make $65,000-70,000 a year, plus overtime. It’s a stable job.”

The job prospects are stable, in part, because the industry is changing. There is a generational turnover of workers in the industry. The Center of Energy Workforce Development, after surveying the industry, predicted that about 40 percent of the nation’s line-worker jobs would need to be filled by 2013. The Texas Workforce Commission projects that the number of line-worker jobs would increase almost 20 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Alba says construction of transmission lines to carry electricity from West Texas wind farms also would increase the demand for workers.

“Where are they going to get experienced lineman?” Alba says of the construction companies. “They are going to take them from us.” TR

Students interested in the ACC program should contact student advisor Vidal Almanza at (512) 223-6404, Aguilar says.

Read about how federal stimulus grants are being made available to Texans.