Many electric utilities face a common challenge: their experienced linemen are retiring. The average age of a utility worker in 2009 was 48, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many linemen can retire at 55 with full benefits, so it may come as no surprise the bureau predicts that almost half of the utility workforce plans to retire in the next five to 10 years.
Replacing these linemen is no easy task. The profession requires an adventurous soul, and even when those souls are found, it takes time to become seasoned. Many utilities work with local vocational schools to recruit apprentices, and others, such as DTE Energy, offer boot camps that give prospects a feel for the work before they commit to a full apprenticeship program.
However, veteran linemen and future veterans have no commitment issues. Many of them enjoy working outdoors despite the physical and mental demands of climbing poles, working in the elements and working with high voltage. Any challenges are triumphed by the satisfaction of turning the lights back on in an era of electricity dependence.
The following stories of three linemen nearing the end of their careers and three linemen toward the beginning of their careers offer a glimpse at why many people in this profession would choose to do nothing else.
It could be said Chris Fleming is following in his father’s footsteps. The 48-year-old lead trainer at DTE Energy’s Center of Excellence Technology Training Center is training Jason Uhl as an apprentice lineman. Fleming’s father and Uhl’s grandfather, both carpenters and farmers, were close friends who also likely shared knowledge with each other in their trades.
Part of the tradition of the lineman profession is passing on the trade, Fleming, a 23-year veteran, said, which is why part of the apprentice program involves learning in the field. After six weeks of apprentice training, the apprentices go out to the service centers to ride with crews and perform trouble work, regular orders, new construction and old construction. Every six to eight months, they move to a different crew.
“You do trouble calls. You get called in the middle of the night. You work a lot of overtime,” said Uhl, who is scheduled to top out of the four-year apprenticeship in December 2013.
The job has been more technical and involved more technology than Uhl had anticipated.
“Even me, being as young as I am, I still don’t understand all of it,” the 24-year-old apprentice said. “Every day, there is something new coming out, and we are trying to learn it as fast as we can. A lot of times we get training before the journeymen do, so we go into the field and we end up training the old guys on it.”
Fleming plans to retire in 10 years, but, until then, he expects to see more changes in his profession, just as he has seen manyadvancements in the past 23 years, including the addition of computers in trucks, the introduction of backyard buckets, the integration of circuits and a greater emphasis on safety procedures.
Safety is never more important than when working restoration after a weather event. Just a few months into his apprenticeship, in 2010, Uhl helped to restore power in Dundee, Michigan, U.S., the town where he lives, after a tornado struck.
“It was pretty moving how many people came together and got the power back on within two days,” Uhl said.
That was one of Uhl’s first experiences with the satisfaction of helping others through his profession.
“You come to an area and its devastation, and when you leave, everybody is clapping and happy that you got their lights back on,” Uhl said. “So it’s pretty rewarding and makes you feel good when you go to leave.”
That satisfaction is something Fleming has experienced multiple times in his career, but the most memorable was the 24 days he spent in Montreal, Canada, in 1998, restoring power after an ice storm downed 110,000 poles and more than 600 towers.
Despite the rewards of experiences such as these, anyone considering the profession must remember it is physically and mentally demanding, even with the advancement in equipment, Fleming said.
“We are climbing poles in the coldest, nastiest days of winter and then on the hottest days of summer,” Fleming said.
The knowledge base to be proficient comes after about three to four years as a journeyman lineman, he added, which is why the retirement and pending retirements of so many of DTE’s journeymen linemen weigh on Fleming.
Even though Uhl is aware of the pending loss of these experienced mentors, he looks forward to the technological advancements he will see during his career and the ability to assist customers, he said.
Neither man would consider another profession.
“I love what I do,” Uhl said. “If I wasn’t a lineman, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative
When Jeff Hohlt started doing line work in 1977 for the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, his training was on the job as a groundman watching the journeymen linemen. Less than a year into his job, his group was brought into Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, based in Bastrop, Texas, U.S. That is where Hohlt eventually moved into a journeyman lineman role.
“When you work on the ground, you do everything on the ground — set the poles, shovel, tamp,” Hohlt said. “And when the linemen were on the poles, we didn’t have buckets, so you handed tools to the linemen so they had what they needed. You watched what they were doing
so when you got up there, you knew what you should be doing.”
Today, Bluebonnet linemen go through a formal training program, as Chad Weiss, 35, can attest. Although Weiss had done line work for the city of Brenham, Texas, for about six years, he had never gone through an apprenticeship program until coming to Bluebonnet, where he graduated from the coop’s four-year apprentice program in late 2012.
The training included classes, book work, studying and taking quizzes on his own time. Apprentices also go through modules and take tests before demonstrating to trainers in the field their skills on specific tasks, Weiss said.
“It was a great deal,” Weiss said about the training program. “It was nice of the company to put forth the effort and money to send us through that.”
According to Hohlt, the effort is especially important since finding new linemen is becoming more difficult for the cooperative, which has hired few linemen in the past 10 years but anticipates several retirements in the next five to eight years. Hohlt, who is 55 years old with 30 years at the utility, may be one of those retirees, although paying for two of his children’s college tuition may push back retirement, he said.
“There is not a big push for people wanting to do this for a living,” Hohlt said. “It’s a tough job on your body. It’s hot and cold, and you work in bad weather and thunderstorms. Everyone wants to sit behind a desk and look at the computer screen. You have to have the right mentality to do this.”
Weiss agrees this profession is not for everyone.
“There aren’t many people who want to go up a pole and put their hands on that kind of voltage,” he said.
However, Weiss has no doubt that this is the profession for him. He had always been curious about how electricity worked. “I figured the only way to figure out how all the power lines worked was to get in and do it,” Weiss said.
Weiss tested his mettle in September 2011 when wildfires near the Bluebonnet headquarters in Bastrop killed two people, burned approximately 1,500 structures, and destroyed poles and wires on the Bluebonnet system. Weiss worked 16-hour days to help repair the infrastructure and then another full year cutting down fire-damaged trees in the area.
Hohlt’s mettle had been tested many years before. A tornado struck in Bluebonnet’s service territory on May 13, 1983. As Hohlt repaired the damage the next day, another storm rolled through. The winds picked up and the skies darkened to almost night, despite it being noon, he recalled. Hohlt was on a pole in a rural area and had nowhere to go for shelter from what he thought may have been a tornado passing overhead.
“I hung on the pole and rode it out,” he said.
Despite these challenges, neither Hohlt nor Weiss would consider doing anything else for a living. The satisfaction of providing such a vital service is just too great.
“You throw that switch and people smile at you and tell you, ‘Thank you,’” Weiss said. “It makes you love your job.”
Kansas City Power & Light
Mike Saunders knows the dangers of the lineman’s job. As he was beginning his apprenticeship at Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) in 1986, Saunders experienced a tragedy when his brother-in-law, who was three months from turning out as a lineman, was killed when he made high-voltage contact with a pole, working out of his gaffs.
“I started the apprenticeship and quickly realized the safety aspects,” Saunders said. “I was probably a little more cautious than most people because of what happened to him. I learned things a little differently than everyone else. I didn’t want to end up the same way.”
That focus on safety continues today for Saunders, especially as he is now supervisor of field training at the KCP&L training center where he teaches the future generation of linemen, a position he has held since 2007.
One of his apprentices, 29-year-old Jerett Cobian, says the focus on safety in the four-year apprenticeship program at KCP&L is evident. It even has caused him to be more cautious at home.
“I was power washing a swing set the other day, and some water sprayed in my face, and I thought, ‘I better go get my safety glasses,’” Cobian said. “Safety is very important. There is no eraser. If you follow the procedures that this company has, it seems a guy could go home safe every night with this company.”
That emphasis on safety continues as the apprentices go out into the field to work with crews during their training. The journeymen in the field can be hard on the apprentices when they do something wrong, but Cobian said he knows it stems from wanting to keep everyone safe.
“Everyone is safety conscious, especially with the apprentices,” Cobian said. “The journeymen think, ‘These guys have less experience, but in a couple of years, this guy might be out in the field with me, so he’s going to need to know how to do this safely so I can go home and see my family and he can go home and see his.’”
Cobian counts himself lucky to be able to learn from the senior linemen, as he sees this work as a lifetime career for himself. He thinks that with the large number of linemen nearing retirement at KCP&L, that experience may not be around much longer.
“At some point, they are going to say, ‘Here are the keys, guys. It’s your turn to drive,’” Cobian said.
That is exactly what happened in 1994 when many KCP&L senior linemen took a mass buyout package from the utility, Saunders said. Many of the remaining linemen were upset about the loss of the experienced linemen, but Saunders reasoned that the retirees had already passed along their knowledge to his generation.
“I told them, ‘Look in the mirror tonight. You are now the old guy,’” Saunders recalled. “I said, ‘Now it is your turn to pass that information onto somebody else.’ Every generation goes through it.”
Even though he does not think the coming retirements are an emergency situation just yet, Saunders does think utilities need to evaluate retirements and determine how to replace linemen before the experience walks out the door.
The International Lineman’s Rodeo is one way to help recruit new people into the profession, as Saunders found out. His daughter and her boyfriend attended a rodeo in 2006 to watch Saunders compete. The boyfriend, Brian Felix — who is now Saunders’ son-in-law — decided the profession was his calling, so he left college where he was studying construction management and began training in the apprenticeship program, making journeyman lineman two years ago.
Saunders is proud of his son-in-law, especially as he also competes at the Lineman’s Rodeo and has placed in various events.
Saunders is also proud of his profession. “Not everybody can do this job,” he said. “When you do find that you are good at it, it makes you really proud to tell people what you do.”