At the 2016 Linemen’s Boot Camp, I stand alongside veteran instructor Todd Wheat as he smiles with appreciation as an agile apprentice is already about 25 ft up a 35-ft utility pole. Other recruits are in various stages of the task — from examining their equipment to being 5 ft off the ground.
As the instructor and I stand outside the pole-climbing training yard at Baseline Safety and Skills Training Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, we also observe one young man kicking his gaffs into the pole. Any observer could see his joy in discovering how well he took to a task most people outside the utility brotherhood would consider unnerving.
A brotherhood, it certainly is. From what I could tell, the kick-off of the 2016 Linemen’s Boot Camp inspired at least three leaders to drive to Little Rock to check in on and observe their apprentices: Forrest City line supervisor Eddie Bosnick, Hot Springs senior lineman Steve Bleifus and Searcy line supervisor Scott Williams.
Back inside the main classroom, Ron Suhm, a senior training specialist with Entergy’s technical skills training division, is teaching a training module to the other team of apprentices. Seven apprentices each are assigned to Team A and Team B, rotating days which group will be in the yard versus the classroom.
When they visit Suhm’s classroom, they quickly learn that safety in all actions is a requirement and priority number one, not only during the boot camp but throughout Entergy. They are also instructed to follow other class rules inscribed on a handwritten poster.
“We’re not a democracy, but we are always open for a good idea,” Suhm directed at me, friendly but firm. Suhm is managing all aspects of boot camp for the first time.
One apprentice likened the atmosphere of boot camp to what it is like to be the new guy on a football team: “You don’t go in telling people what to do. You listen and get your assigned job done, that way you can earn their respect.”
Inspired Managers Supporting Employee Growth
Last year, Suhm’s leadership team encouraged him to step up and be the lead instructor for the 2016 Linemen's Boot Camp. Dennis Weaver, the Arkansas and Mississippi training supervisor, and Suhm traveled outside of Arkansas for professional development classes and later advocated for representatives from the Association for Talent Development (ATD) to deliver a Train-the-Trainer class for the entire department, with each trainer receiving a certificate of completion. Since that time, all new trainers have attended the ATD Trainer Certificate Course at various locations around the United States.
“I traveled to the Power House, Entergy’s facility in Jackson and came back with specific tactics I could use to help me grow as a trainer as well as to become a better leader in the classroom," Suhm says.
John Morehead manages the trainers for all Entergy operating companies. While Arkansas trainers demonstrated employee practices of ownership and effective teamwork, Morehead recognizes a motivated, well-trained employee is a productive employee. He warns about falling into “a comfort zone where individuals teach the things or groups they are most comfortable with” and sees the value in providing trainers with career growth opportunities that champion collaborative exercises and group discussions.
A Boot Camp of Firsts
In addition to being Suhm’s first boot camp, this year’s class is unique on several fronts: 14 apprentices, from two generations, represent four of Entergy Arkansas’ five regions. Collectively, the class may be its most diverse yet; just consider their career and family backgrounds: a master electrician who remained optimistic and persistent in his pursuit to work for Entergy; an oil field worker; a state prison guard; a bartender; an entrepreneur; a state trooper; an Accu-Read employee who decided to switch from removing single-phase meters under load to embodying a customer’s hero; a teenager from a legacy lineman family; and a son of a chief clerk from West Markham Service Center.
About communicating with apprentices across generations, journeyman lineman John Wilkins from Batesville, Arkansas, says trainers need to be creative. As he talks to me, he keeps his eyes focused on Team A apprentices tackling a scenario he has assigned them in the training yard. Wilkins, who was featured in the The Weather Channel’s docu-series “Lights Out” about Entergy Arkansas linemen, is one of several boot camp coach observers who will provide counsel during the 12-week course.
Wilkins says the Linemen’s Boot Camp prepares apprentices to communicate clearly and effectively with one another. Apprentice Evan Fraser, the master electrician in the class, says from his experience in boot camp, the instructors help apprentices to strengthen their ability to trust in themselves and in their crews.
“We’re learning how each of us has his own personality, and if you see someone who’s normally outgoing get quiet, you know to reach out: ‘Hey buddy, are you okay?’”
That peer check for pole buddies is just one of the ways apprentices and linemen keep a questioning mind. The brotherhood of linemen live by a creed to watch each other’s back and to make sure everyone goes home safely.
State troopers know a thing or two about hazards on the job. Just ask apprentice Zach Varnell who had earned a position on the highway patrol’s elite SWAT team. He describes discussing with his girlfriend his anguish over leaving a job he loved for Entergy and was deeply concerned, at the beginning of boot camp, about what he perceived as a loss of a position of honor and prestige. “I just don’t want to let that go,” he told me after class.
In a private group discussion during the second week of boot camp, seven apprentices discussed the notion that a lineman answers a noble call. “I’m learning about the utility brotherhood and I’m excited to learn more about that,” Varnell says.
Keithan Williams from Hot Springs, Arkansas, is the newest hire of the bunch, and by Week Two, had earned the name Joker. Along with his lighthearted demeanor, he can get serious about what drew him to Entergy. He’s been with the utility since the end of February and extols the utility’s strong support for craft workers through competitive salaries and pensions. “With a high school diploma you can earn a respectable living and provide for your family,” the 26-year-old said.
Boot camp exercises also teach apprentices how to delegate and how to work side-by-side their instructors. When they return to their service centers, senior linemen will continue their instruction. It’s on-the-job training every day for four years.
During one boot camp exercise in week nine, Williams worked side-by-side with Wilkins, the coach-observer from Batesville. There’s a new confidence in the energetic recruit who had earlier played a role delegating a job to another crew.
The mentoring exercise? How to rig up a crossarm to be sent up a handline to the lineman on the pole: Wilkins instructs Williams to get rid of the slack in the rope itself, specifically between the anchor tie-off points he is using to attach the handline.
Observations Upon Graduation
Varnell, now called Trooper by his colleagues, summed up what many of the 2016 apprentices shared in conversation over the last 12 weeks: In a connected world, if customers can’t power their homes and businesses, life stops.
“I have the utmost respect for first responders,” says Varnell, when he was recalling his life as a state trooper. “Most people who see state troopers just want to get on with their lives and see the lanes of traffic cleared. It wasn’t until I completed Linemen’s Boot Camp that I saw the similarities: hazards on the job, responding to 24/7 calls and knowing that what we do for our communities is vital. I wanted to know I was going to matter when I took this job.
“Now that I’ve made it through boot camp, I realize I did not understand the magnitude of what being a lineman was all about. It’s humbling for me to look around at our instructors, and the years of experience they bring to the job, and know that I am now welcomed into this brotherhood.”
No utility job can ever be made completely safe, but the job can be made safer if people remain alert to the risks and communicate, says the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Under Suhm’s leadership, the 2016 Entergy Arkansas Boot Camp apprentices will go back to their service centers knowing how to do just that.
Sally Graham is a senior communications specialist for Entergy Arkansas. She visited with the apprentices three times during the 12-week Boot Camp.
Editor’s note: To see a snapshot of life inside the training yard, view a video clip at Entergy.com/BootCamp2016.