Across the line trade, utilities are confronting the same issue — an aging field workforce. For example, lineworkers average between 50 and 62 years old at Eversource Energy in New Hampshire. Rather than waiting for these veteran lineworkers to walk out of the door in the next five to seven years, the utility is taking a proactive approach to its training program.
To recruit the younger generation into the utility industry, Eversource Energy partnered with Manchester Community College (MCC), the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to create a new hands-on certification program. This initiative has many benefits over onboarding a field worker straight from the street.
Because the interns must pay for courses through the local community college, they take on some of the financial burden of training and have some “skin in the game.” On the flip side, by working with Eversource, NECA and the IBEW, the interns are able to gain actual experience out in the field before stepping foot into an apprenticeship program.
The interns who participate in the new program often enjoy working outdoors and with their hands. By successfully completing the internship, they are able to gain exposure to the line trade and break into a career in the utility industry.
Eleven interns participated in the internship program starting in January 2017, and in May 2017, they finished their first semester. After spending their summer working for Eversource Energy on a limited part-time basis, they returned to MCC for their second semester in September.
Because of the limited number of interns, the program is highly competitive and not every applicant is selected. To recruit possible candidates, Eversource Energy sponsors open houses and invites participants through newspaper and television advertisements as well as through social media.
After passing a college entry exam, applicants move on to a rigorous screening process. During a 15- to 20-minute interview, the stakeholders ask potential students a variety of questions to ensure that they are ready for the next step of the program — boot camp. During this intensive one-day session, the candidates must endure a series of physical challenges that demand the dexterity needed in the line industry. For example, they must climb a ladder and pole with full fall restraint and perform many other tasks that prove they have the physical body strength to do line work.
Eversource Energy then selects the cream of the crop and offers them the opportunity to enroll in the course at MCC. Earlier this year, all the prospective students who passed the college entry exam and boot camp accepted the position in the program and started on their path in the trade.
Offering Real-World Training
During the program, students receive the best of both worlds, training both in the classroom and out in the field. The students sit in the classroom for four to eight hours per week, during which time they are assigned homework and mandatory reading assignments.
Eversource Energy works closely with MCC to develop the curriculum; that way, when the students spend time out in the field as interns, all their learning experiences in the classroom start to click and make sense. In addition, Eversource Energy has helped MCC to hire field professionals as adjunct professors to deliver the material in the proper manner.
When the students are out in the field as interns, they learn basic yet critical skills like the art of climbing a wood pole. Over the years, lineworkers have seen increased innovation with fall-restraining belts as well as improved productivity through bucket trucks. While many of today’s lineworkers may not climb poles day in and day out, the students must learn this skill so they know how to scale a structure in extreme circumstances.
Eversource Energy’s summer interns may spend an entire day just learning how to climb a pole in the company’s training yard. The trainers take a building block approach to teaching pole climbing, first focusing on scaling and descending a pole, and then instructing students on how to work aloft.
Because Eversource Energy is heavily invested in the program, the company has donated some older line trucks and digger trucks to MCC for real-life training. With this equipment, the interns are able to learn how to drive commercial vehicles and train to earn their commercial driver’s license.
Procuring the commercial driver’s license is a huge step for several reasons. Whether they are hired on at Eversource Energy or any other utility or line contractor, they will need to earn this license in order to drive and operate trailers, bucket trucks and other heavy equipment.
Learning About the Trade
The internship portion of the Electrical Lineworker Certificate Program is designed as an exposure to all the facets of the utility industry. During the first day of the program, Eversource Energy focuses on immersing the interns in its safety culture. Many of the interns strive to be future lineworkers, so lineworkers and working foremen invite them to sit in the passenger seat of their vehicles and go on a line crew ride. This enables them to observe the tailboard meeting, or pre-job briefing session, and to ask questions and receive guidance.
By seeing how all the pieces fit together, the interns have a clear view of how line crews work together and what it would be like to work out in the field as an apprentice or journeyman lineman. During the program, the interns gain access not only to the line crews, but also the other departments. Eversource Energy has many moving parts, and as such, it’s important for the interns to learn what it’s like to work at an investor-owned company. The interns are able to observe the community relations and corporate communications departments.
In addition, the interns also are able to visit the system operations center, where the operators control the system remotely and can operate devices, issue clearances for crews to work on certain sections of the line, and control the entire system. The lineworkers at Eversource Energy work closely with this center to ensure the safety of the field workforce and the efficient operation of the infrastructure.
By giving the interns an overall view of the company, Eversource Energy tries to educate them about the culture of the company, the speed at which the employees work and the communication methods that are used throughout the different departments. Most importantly, however, the utility wants the interns to learn about its safety culture and how safety is permeated into absolutely everything the company does.
Gaining a Competitive Edge
After two semesters of training, the interns are by no means fully rated lineworkers, but by learning the theory of electricity, mastering the art of climbing and being able to drive commercial vehicles, the interns are 10 steps ahead of many other job candidates, making them marketable in the job force.
Eversource Energy hopes to retain the interns as full-time employees once they graduate from the program if positions become available. If they are hired on into the full-time apprenticeship program, the apprentices spend 18 months at an area work center. During this time, the new hires travel around the entire state and perform closely monitored and prescribed work within their level of expertise. After the 18-month apprenticeship, they top out as a lineworker 1.
By opening the eyes of the interns to line work, the program is giving these young adults the opportunity to enter a safe and lucrative profession that will serve them well for years. ♦
Karl Douglas is the manager of regional operations for Eversource Energy and supervises 18 line crews and five supervisors. He is responsible for monitoring, maintaining, repairing and building infrastructure; monitoring budgets; and managing the progression of lineworkers. He has been with the company for more than 34 years and has served as a lineworker, trainer, supervisor and training manager. He also led the development of the Electrical Lineworker Certificate Program with Manchester Community College as well as the summer internship program at Eversource Energy.