Training from Within
Trainee line workers are tested thoroughly to make sure they can work in the physically demanding conditions that come with the job. Students in Austin Community College’s training program spend hours climbing practice poles and assembling and repairing simulated transmission lines in a safe environment under the watchful eyes of experienced instructors. Photos by Raul Santos
Georgetown Utilities builds a team for the future
When the 50,000 residents of Georgetown switch on their coffee pots in the morning or click the remote for a Sunday afternoon football game, it probably doesn’t cross their minds that, without the work of fewer than two dozen city workers, there’d be no electricity powering their brew or lighting up their flat-screen TV.
For Energy Services Manager Paul Elkins, the knowledge that highly trained, experienced and careful linemen can climb into action at a moment’s notice to remedy problems and maintain and improve the city’s electrical infrastructure is important not just for today, but also for the future. The average age of a lineman — a qualified journeyman electrician who can work with high-voltage electrical lines and the substations that transmit power to every home and business on the grid — is in the mid-40s. Elkins says utility providers must act now to avert a shortage of experienced and qualified personnel.
Georgetown Utilities Manager Paul Elkins (pictured left) discusses the challenging working environment for electric linemen and why his organization opted to begin training new employees in-house. Entry-level linemen begin their apprenticeship as trainee groundmen and have guaranteed pay increases and promotion as they pass each stage of their training.
Learn while you earn
“When I came to Georgetown, we didn’t have a formal training program or promotion ladder,” Elkins says. “We hire new linemen as either certified journeymen or entry-level groundmen.”
Now, the city has a self-paced probationary training program.
“The entry-level trainees go through a six-month probationary period where they’ll get their climbing certificate, their commercial driving license and other basic training,” he says. “When they pass those, they’ll get a bump in pay and a change of status.”
An in-house apprenticeship such as this requires both committed trainees and careful judgment by utility companies, which must hire new employees who understand the difficult nature of the career and the multi-year process required to become a qualified lineman.
“It’s a very physically demanding job,” Elkins says. “Your daily operations are maintaining old lines to keep service on for customers or building new lines to get service to customers.
“There are no days off because the weather is too hot or too cold — you work regardless,” he says. “When everybody really wants you is when the power is out.”
Elkins says prospective workers and employers alike must know whether a candidate can climb utility poles and work safely and confidently in dangerous situations, protecting their own safety and that of their workmates and customers.
Another benefit of in-house training — particularly in a close-knit operation such as Georgetown’s, with just four four-man crews servicing the whole area — is that trainees learn the entire system from the ground up. Elkins says the broader base of knowledge and cross-training is beneficial for efficient operations, so that when Georgetown residents wake up in the morning, they can hit the power switches and smell the coffee.
Learn to climb like a lineman at ACC
Since 2010, three utility managers from Georgetown Utilities, Austin Energy and Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative have taught a training program on Saturday mornings at Austin Community College (ACC), where potential lineman (or lineworker) candidates can learn the basics and earn a certificate or associate degree that can give them a head start over less-qualified applicants for entry-level positions.
Why Train Lineworkers at ACC?
- The college has developed a three-semester certificate program and a five-semester associate degree plan as a tool to recruit new staff for utilities in Central Texas.
- The training can help pre-qualify students by equipping them with basic knowledge and skill sets that will help them adapt more quickly into the field.
- Developing the program was a group effort by area utilities including Austin Energy, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, Georgetown Utility Systems, Lower Colorado River Authority, Oncor Electric Delivery and Pedernales Electric Cooperative.
According to ACC, entry-level utility lineworkers in Central Texas earn about $30,500 annually, and fully trained linemen can earn about $50,000 annually within four to five years.
A dangerous job
Adjunct instructor Paul Elkins of Georgetown Utilities says the program helps candidates interested in becoming linemen because they can find out if they are really cut out for the job.
“The lineman career is one of the most dangerous,” he says. “It is a worst nightmare for an employer to hire someone off the street or straight out of high school, spend time and money training them, and then discover six months later they can’t do it because they are scared of heights or have conflicts in their life. Then you just have to start over.
“The program at ACC creates a pool of candidates for area utilities,” Elkins says. “They have basic skills and knowledge of the job; the hiring utilities know they have climbing skills to work in the field.”
Comptroller JET grant funds lineman poles
and climbing gear
A $105,000 equipment grant from the Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texas (JET) program helped launch the ACC lineworker program by providing matching funding for poles, climbing equipment, gloves and safety gear investment.
“The goal of the workforce development department at ACC is to provide students with the education and training they need to get an edge up when applying for jobs,” says Alberto Quinonez, chairman of the college’s Department of Electronics and Advanced Technologies.
The lineworker training program helps employers because there was a lack of training programs locally, Elkins adds. TR
Trainee lineworkers (above) at Austin Community College are tested on their ability to work safely and efficiently with professional safety equipment atop utility poles funded by the Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texans Job Building grant.
Each trainee is issued a bag of training equipment (right) including gloves, hard hat, climbing boots and safety harness. Personnel from Austin Energy, Bluebonnet Electric Co-operative and Georgetown Utilities have taught ACC’s entry-level line worker training program since 2010.