To train its workforce for the future, Consumers Energy constructed a new training center six years ago. Today a combination of more than 2,000 students, apprentices and journeymen linemen sharpen their skills on everything from climbing poles to operating heavy equipment each year on the training grounds in Marshall, Michigan.
Prior to 2008, the field workforce attended class in a smaller training center; and often, they had to learn in portable classrooms, which limited the size of the classes. As part of its “Go Forward” initiative, the utility demolished the existing center and invested $5 million to construct a new training center with six classrooms. In addition, the center features three individual labs for line work, substations and electric meter training, a separate renewable energy center and outdoor training facilities. On more than 40 acres of land, new and seasoned field workers learn how to stay safe and productive in the field through a blend of classroom and hands-on training.
To help the workers train year-round, the utility built an indoor climbing arena at its training center. In this area, apprentices can practice setting and climbing 45-ft wood poles in the dirt and gravel floor while the instructors coach them from a catwalk above the arena.
Preparing Students for the Future
With its indoor climbing arena, the utility has the capability to train individuals before they even enter the apprenticeship program. Through its school-to-work program, Consumers Energy has a working agreement with the Lansing Community College, and soon, the utility may have a similar agreement with Alpena Community College to certify college students as potential apprentices.
By taking electrical classes at Lansing Community College and getting hands-on training at Consumer Energy’s Marshall Training Center, the students will be prepared to enter the utility’s apprenticeship program upon completion.
Prior to participating in the utility’s intense climbing training program, the students work to improve their level of physical fitness. To this end, Lansing Community College set up a specialized training program for the future apprentices to strengthen their forearms, legs and core to get them ready for the climbing course.
While not all the students are cut out to become linemen because of their fear of heights, the college ensures that their lack of strength isn’t preventing them from passing the climbing exam. That way, they have the opportunity to be successful during the climbing training, which can be physically strenuous and takes a different set of muscles.
As part of this program, the utility invites the college students to the training center for a four-day climbing orientation to ensure that the students can climb poles using the gaffs and climbing equipment. Then during the final component of the program, the students spend 10 weeks at the training center. During a three-week session, they learn how to become proficient climbers, and then during the rest of the session, they build lines, run chain saws as part of the forestry program, and install a secondary service working with 120-V and 240-V energized conductors.
If the students successfully complete the entire program, Consumers Energy can hire them immediately as lineworker apprentices, and they can then enter into the four-and-a-half year program.
Consumers Energy has 41.5 acres available for training, and it uses nearly all of the land for different stages of apprenticeships. To advance from a basic line apprentice to a journeyman lineman, it takes a combination of about 6,900 hours of on-the-job training and classroom work.
To help move the apprentices through the different steps in their apprenticeship, Consumers Energy has set up the training grounds to train the apprentices in pole climbing, constructing lines and hanging crossarms.
First, the apprentices learn how to construct overhead lines while standing on the ground, at 10 ft and at 40 ft. The instructors teach them how to build power banks on poles and work on single-phase primary, 4,800 kV and distribution training. As they progress through their training, they also learn how to locate wire underground by using a “thumper” device, which sends signals through the ground to find a fault in the line.
Because Consumers Energy has underground infrastructure in some of the bigger cities like Grand Rapids, Flint and Kalamazoo, Michigan, the instructors must train the apprentices on locating underground faults when going from pad-mount to pad-mount as well as how to work in confined spaces. To provide the apprentices with real-world experience, Consumers Energy has an underground vault to train them on fixing transformers and splicing underground cable.
In this area of the training center, the instructors focus on the safety of working underground. For example, the apprentices must check that the vault is safe before entering it because it can contain trapped gases. In some cases, the fault in the line may actually be inside the vault, which can cause an arc fault situation. As a result, the trainers teach the apprentices how to safely enter and exit the vault, rescue a hurt coworker and test whether the equipment is energized or de-energized.
In addition to the vault training, the apprentices can also gain real-world experience operating work vehicles and heavy equipment through the line work training program. Consumers Energy has devoted six bucket trucks and two digger derricks for training, and teaches apprentices to operate the equipment, dig holes and set poles.
Apprentices who are interested in working in substations can train inside a de-energized substation, which is set up to look exactly like the utility’s substations in the field. In this area of the training grounds, apprentices can set up a fault in the meter socket and then look for errors to ensure that they are taking the proper voltage. In addition, they can also gain clearance to visit Consumers Energy’s fully working, energized substations close to Marshall Training Center.
Finally, the training center has renewable energy equipment such as a wind turbine and photovoltaic arrays, which the instructors can refer to during training. Although the linemen are not directly involved in installing the renewable energy equipment, the electricity produced by these units still flows down the line; therefore, they must understand how the electricity is produced, how to work with it and how to ensure that it is de-energized.
Consumers Energy not only focuses on training students and apprentices, but also on providing continuing education and refresher courses to its veteran journeymen. For example, the crews learn how to hang multiple transformers and connect the power banks together, which is a work method they may not often perform in the field.
The utility also provided fall protection training to the journeymen linemen. A few years ago, Consumers Energy prepared to comply with the new regulations by requiring its apprentices to wear a fall restraint belt. At that time, about 200 out of the 600 workers were wearing fall protection.
The utility then faced the challenge of training the remaining 400 lineworkers on fall protection before April 1, 2015. To accomplish this feat, the company provided fall protection belt certification courses to the crews. As part of the training, the linemen could choose from one of two different belts: the Super Squeeze Fall Arrest Belt from Buckingham Manufacturing or the DBI Sala Cinch Lok. By offering two different belts, the utility was able to give the linemen a choice as to which device they wanted to use to replace their Buck Straps.
The utility then trained the seasoned journeymen on how to use the fall restraint belts and transition over obstacles. As part of this training, the linemen also watched an hour-long video. Because the training took place in January, February and March, the trainers then took the journeymen into the indoor climbing arena, where they practiced climbing for four hours. At the end of the hands-on session, they each took a final performance test to show the trainers that they could successfully climb the poles using the fall protection equipment.
The utility trained about 15 journeymen per session and had about two sessions per day to train all of the journeymen linemen prior to the OSHA deadline. Looking forward, the utility is planning to do more journeyman-level training. In the process, the company is ensuring that it has the same equipment in the training center as the linemen are using out in the field to provide real-world training.
Infusing Technology into Training
At the Marshall Training Center, participants gain hands-on experience and learn skills in the classroom. By investing in computer technology, the utility has been able to train its employees to use the mobile computers out in the field effectively. Each classroom is equipped with desktop computers, but in the future, the company plans to invest in more laptops. Linemen are currently using Panasonic Toughbooks in the field. To teach the apprentices how to use the laptops and software, Consumers Energy has dedicated one of its classrooms to outage management. That way, they can log on to the different systems used by the utility. They can look up outages through the operational meter analysis and reporting system or outage management system, and as a result, they can learn how the utility locates and tracks outages.
The company also has the ability to offer video conferencing for those linemen who can’t travel to the training center in Marshall. To participate in the distance learning, a lineman must visit an operating center equipped with the technology. Then, the lineman can “sit in” on the class by viewing a live streaming presentation of the instructor leading the class. The system is so expensive that the utility does not yet have the capability in all of its service centers, but it is now in the process of updating the equipment in other locations so that more linemen can take advantage of this technology.
Consumers Energy is also adding electronic white board technology to every classroom in the training center. Instructors can log on to the computers, fire up the Sharp Board and use the board like a touch screen on the computer. For example, if they display a wiring diagram of a transformer, they can draw directly on the picture to show the different parts of it.
Through technology, hands-on experience and classroom instruction, all the field employees — from new apprentices to veteran linemen — are learning about the utility’s work practices and how to work safely and efficiently in the field.
Editor’s note: Richard Scott, the senior EDC lead of electrical technical skills training at the Marshall Training Center in Marshall, Michigan, contributed to this article. Prior to joining the utility four years ago, Scott served as the director of apprenticeships and employment services for Lansing Community College.
A Look Inside the Marshall Training Center
To train the future generation of lineworkers, Consumers Energy transformed a natural gas service center into a training center for electrical and substation training in 1979. Then, in 2008, the utility invested $5 million to build a new training center, where twice as many workers can train than in the previous building. The facility, which is located on the site of the previous building, sits on 41.5 acres and required 150 construction workers to complete.
As part of the expansion, Consumers Energy built a renewable energy component to the training program with two small-scale wind turbines and a fixed-panel solar array, which heats and powers the renewable energy building and lights the outdoor training areas.
The Marshall Training Center incorporates increased technological capabilities — such as distance learning. Each of the classrooms is equipped with large-screen — television monitors, computers and teleconferencing capabilities, which allow linemen who live across the state to participate in training sessions without driving hundreds of miles.
The center earned a silver Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) certification for carefully positioning skylights to provide natural light and installing sensors that trigger lights on and off in the classrooms as well as for its advanced insulation design. Because of these energy-efficient features, the new center uses two-thirds less energy than the old building.