As American cities grow and expand, they are building new housing developments and office parks, requiring the construction of more and more power lines. In turn, the job market for electrical power line installers and repairers is projected to grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To meet this increasing demand, the new Lineman Institute of the North East (L.I.N.E.) is currently training entry-level apprentices, who can expect to earn between $36,000 to $65,000 a year, depending upon the state where they are employed. With regular overtime opportunities, they can earn more than $100,000 for an annual income.
Founded by Donald Leiching, a 33-year veteran of the electric utility industry, and his family, the 15-week training program in upstate New York aims to prepare more young people for future careers in the line trade. The goal of the program is to train and develop pre-apprentices who will not only meet, but exceed, the demands and requirements of the electrical industry in the 21st century.
Founding the Program
After working around the country as both a lineman and as a manager for nine different electric utilities, Leiching anticipated the shortage of trained utility workers entering the trade. Rather than sit back and wait for the problem to get worse, however, he decided to take action and create his own training program.
He noticed that all of the workers who were being trained were coming from the schools “down South,” and he discovered a shortage of schools available to the students in the mid-Atlantic and New England region, according to Nanci Leiching, his wife of 27 years.
“It became his dream to rectify that situation,” she said.
The Leichings then moved their family back to their hometown so they could be close to the grandparents. He then began to work on ways to create a new pre-apprentice lineman training school, and in May 2018, the L.I.N.E. program first opened its doors.
Giving Opportunities to Others
The school works within the general mold of pre-apprentice line schools already in operation, but unlike other training schools nationwide, the L.I.N.E. program takes a more individualized approach through instructional mentoring.
By being a hands-on mentor to the students, Leiching could interact with the students on a more personal level, just like in a classic apprenticeship program. Back in 1994, he developed several training programs including a hot stick school, which is still in operation today. Over the course of 25 years, he taught apprentice linemen from the pre-apprentice stage all the way to topping out as journeymen.
Through his training program, Leiching strives to help young people find their way in the line trade. As the son of a single mother, he lived in subsidized housing, and he dropped out of high school at age 17 to join the Army Reserves. He decided to learn the line trade because “it looked like fun,” and he never looked back.
After completing the Army’s Power Line Specialist Training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Missouri, he worked in the construction industry and for contractors before working for utilities across the United States in Maryland, Washington, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York.
Now that he has more than three decades in the trade and has one son in the line trade and one with plans to become a lineman, he wants to afford the same opportunity to young people—those who are lost in life or know exactly what direction they want to go in.
“The L.I.N.E. family wants to give back to repay the incredible life we have been given,” said Nanci Leiching. “Coming from a troubled background, Donald always found himself drawn to wandering and lost youths.”
For example, in 2007, the Leiching family adopted a sibling group from the Connecticut Department of Children and Family. As the parents of four children—two biological and two adopted—helping out the foster care system has continued to be a priority for the family.
“L.I.N.E. was founded as a way to provide a route for young people to enter the electric utility trade and because of interactions with the foster care system, we wanted to include children caught up in the system as well,” Nanci Leiching said.
Currently, the family is working on offering an all-inclusive, full-ride scholarship, which includes tuition, tools, room and board and fees; family and system support; and whatever else is needed for one deserving person who has aged out of the foster care system each semester.
Working as a Team
To get the L.I.N.E. training center up and running, it took time and effort from the entire Leiching family. The family members customized the building themselves with grandpa doing the spackling, grandma doing the touch-up painting, and the kids and their friends smashing walls and hauling construction waste.
While Nanci Leiching designed the office, Don and his son, Aaron, his junior pre-apprentice, bid for bucket trucks at the auction and then put the trucks to work. In addition, Aaron, who wants to one day become a lineman, helped his dad construct the outdoor training yard.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Shannon organized tours and did office work, and Brinnah designed and operates the Web page, the social media presence and the student recruitment.
“Lineman Institute of the North East is a family operation and an American dream come true,” Nanci Leiching said. “Our heart and soul is in this school, and it shows in our interaction with our students and their families.”
As his family focused on designing and building the training center, Donald designed the curriculum, the training rooms and the classroom structure. After working in transmission, distribution and underground, he is now teaching several classes in the safe working practices of each discipline.
“Being a journeyman lineman gave Donald the life he dreamed of and he wants to return the favor,” said Nanci Leiching. “Lineman Institute of the North East is how he is going to do that.”
Training the Next Generation
Rather than focusing on training large classes of pre-apprentices at one time, the L.I.N.E. program limits its class sizes to 21 students to give more individualized attention. The students must be 18 years old or older, possess a high-school diploma or GED, possess a valid driver’s license and be able to obtain a commercial driver’s license. In addition, they must not weigh over 400 pounds and be physically able to complete the training.
Once the students are accepted into the program, they receive 500 total hours of instruction and hands-on training over the course of 15, 40-hour weeks to learn how to build, repair and maintain electrical distribution systems.
The pre-apprentices participate in classroom and laboratory instruction at the training center in Saugerties, New York. The facility, which includes a 5000-sq-ft indoor training facility, also has a classroom and indoor training space. Also, within the five-acre outdoor training yard, students can learn how to safely use the tools and equipment in the power industry, including heavy equipment and vehicles such as bucket and digger trucks.
Students learn about such topics as overhead and underground line construction; transformer connections; splicing; meters; substation; circuit breakers; and regulators. Also, the instructors teach the pre-apprentices about First Aid/CPR, OSHA Construction 10-hour ETD, Bucket Rescue, Pole Top Rescue, Flagging and Traffic Control and Digger Derrick and Bucket Safety.
During their time in the training yard and in the classroom, and build their industry knowledge and skills. In addition, the instructors will teach them about apprenticeship and job search tools like how to find job openings and prepare for an interview.
As more linemen retire from the trade, utilities and contractors will be looking for the next wave of qualified workers, and some of them will hail from upstate New York. Nanci Leiching said the goal of L.I.N.E. is to give young men and women, who have the desire, drive and stamina, a leg-up in their journey to become linemen.
“Increasingly, power companies, electrical contractors and Union shops are looking for skilled, knowledgeable apprentices who are ready to hit the ground running,” said Nanci Leiching. “Donald designed the curriculum of L.I.N.E. to provide focused, personalized and detailed training that will not only meet, but exceed the expectations of those employers.”
Editor’s Note: To get an inside look at the Lineman Institute of the North East, view the “Giving Back: Lineman Launches a New Training Program” photo gallery at https://www.tdworld.com/safety-and-training/giving-back-lineman-launches-new-training-program.