Dennis Kerr may have retired from DTE Energy (Detroit, Michigan, U.S.) in August 2009, but the 65-year-old's schedule remains busier than an electrical crew helping restore power after a major storm. A former journeyman lineman and safety trainer, Kerr serves as the co-chairman of the board of directors for the International Lineman's Rodeo Association, is a long-standing executive member with the Michigan Safety Conference and heads up the Michigan Lineman's Association. Despite the many hats he wears, his preferred role is that of father and grandfather.
Raised in Bad Axe, Michigan, Kerr attended Ferris State College, where he earned an associate's degree in business. After graduation, he joined Detroit Edison, which later became DTE Energy.
“I hired on with the company because they were accepting lineman apprentices,” he said. “I started out at the end of a 5-foot shovel, digging holes and setting poles.”
Just six months into his employment, however, Kerr was drafted to the Vietnam War. Instead of joining the Army, he enlisted in the Navy, becoming a second-class yeoman and running a personnel office during his last year aboard ship.
“I returned to DTE in 1971 when my military obligation ended,” he recalled. “I entered their apprenticeship program and became a journey lineman three years later. I climbed poles until 1982, and then moved to our technical training center to help train apprentices.”
Kerr also worked in the company's college professional recruitment area and was a division instructor responsible for the safety and training at three lineman service centers.
“Before 1985, all of our training records were kept by hand,” he said. “I had five filing cabinets filled with paperwork. One of my colleagues suggested we put the records into a personnel training history system to streamline the process. It was quite an undertaking and took a lot of effort, but it was a real plus once we finished the project.”
Kerr next returned to corporate training as supervisor for overhead and underground lines training and then took an operating supervisor position at one of DTE's service centers, where he spent the last 12 years of his career.
Retirement has allowed the former lineman to become even more involved in one of passions: the International Lineman's Rodeo. Held annually in Bonner Springs, Kansas, U.S., this event attracts nearly 5,000 people from all over the world.
“I've been involved with the International Lineman's Rodeo since 1987,” Kerr said. “I took teams down there to compete and then worked as a judge. Now, I'm the co-chair of the board of directors.”
The former lineman is also chairman of the board of the Michigan Lineman's Association, which puts on a rodeo every year, and is as a chief judge for the Gaff-n-Go Lineman's Rodeo in Virginia. In addition, he recently stepped down as president of the Michigan Safety Conference, a two-day safety training event held each spring that targets workplace health and safety issues.”
“As you can probably tell, workplace safety still is a big part of my life,” he laughed. “I think lineman's rodeos are important to the utility industry because they promote safety and skills of the trade. It is dangerous to be a lineman, and participating in these events can help decrease that risk. They're also a bunch of fun.”
According to Kerr, lineman's rodeos also help raise awareness of the trade — something he feels is important.
“We are suffering from a lineman shortage,” he said. “Most high school curriculums are geared toward students who will go on to college, but college is not for everyone. Being a lineman takes dexterity, physical fitness and a love of the outdoors, which are traits a lot of today's young people possess. We need to do a better job of promoting the trade at the high school level, because it is a very exciting profession.”
Kerr experienced some of this excitement firsthand during his time as a journeyman lineman, such as when he and another member of his crew were caught in a tornado.
“We had just finished up a job so we were in our bucket truck filling out paperwork,” he remembered. “All of a sudden, the wind picked up and it began storming. Then, the truck began rocking violently back and forth. It got so dark that I could not see the guy sitting next to me. This was back before all the weather technology existed, so we did not find out until the next day that a tornado had passed right over us.”
These days, the father of three prefers to keep his excitement mostly contained to the golf course and watching his grandchildren's musical and sporting events. However, he still finds time to enjoy a little adventure.
“I recently spent a week in Florida with my son and three of my grandkids kayaking, swimming with manatees and dolphins, and doing some simulation skydiving,” he said. “I am grateful to have lived long enough to reach retirement so I can spend as much time as I can with family and friends.”