Bridging the Gap

Sept. 1, 2012
Electric utilities implement mentoring and training programs to help pass knowledge from veterans to apprentices.

Within the next five to seven years, Ameren will lose about one-third of its journeymen. When that time comes, however, the utility will not be left empty-handed. It is already training the next generation of linemen. But, like other utilities, Ameren is trying to find the best way to transfer the knowledge and experience from its veteran linemen to these new apprentices.

“Throughout the industry, the average age of our workforce is 55, and we're losing a lot of good, experienced people,” said Marvin Morey, managing supervisor of operations for electric training and quality assurance for Ameren in Decatur, Illinois. “Right now, we have a lot of journeymen who are staying beyond retirement age to make sure the economy turns around. When things start looking good, however, we'll lose a lot of good folks fast.”

Across America, the electric industry is experiencing a baby boomer bubble of linemen getting ready to retire, said Sal Arias, a training specialist III for Southern California Edison (SCE). In the next six years, a lot of experience will go right out the door, he said. Utilities can solve this problem by hiring more people now to make up for the loss they will have later. While they may carry a fat roster for a few years, it will be worthwhile in the end, he said.

“There's always someone who will learn enough to replace you,” Arias explained. “The next generation will come in to replace the old wave. I don't think there's a shortage of potential skill out there. All it takes is training as well as the money to train.”

By proactively partnering with colleges, recruiting young students from high schools, developing mentorship programs and modernizing apprenticeship programs, electric utilities are trying to bridge the generation gap and train the next generation of linemen.

“Oncor continues to get an influx of new talent because it stays involved with the local linemen's schools and community colleges,” said Keith Hull, vice president of distribution operations for Oncor in Dallas, Texas.

“One of the things that we really look at in the next five to seven years is that quite a few folks will have the opportunity to retire,” said Hull, who has been with the utility for 30 years. “When we look at that, we want to make sure we help the younger folks coming in to gain that knowledge from the more senior linemen.”

Replacing Experienced Linemen

The retirement of veteran linemen will be coming at a time when many electric utilities are deploying smart meters and upgrading aging infrastructure. To ensure they are properly staffed to handle these jobs, some utilities are retraining meter readers as groundsmen or bringing them on board for their apprenticeship programs.

For example, SCE's meter readers are losing their jobs because of the smart grid project, and many of them are trying to enter the apprenticeship program, Arias said. It can be very competitive, however, to get into an entry-level position at the utility.

Over the last few years, the power industry as a whole has been stagnant as far as hiring new employees, Ameren's Morey observed.

“We lose some of the more experienced folks, and their replacements aren't hired until after they leave,” said Morey, who has been in the industry for 34 years. “That is a major loss.”

Recently, however, Ameren has been trying to bring new apprentices on board before the veteran linemen retire. That way, the apprentices have the opportunity to work with the veterans through on-the job training during their three-year apprenticeship program.

While this is the ideal situation, it is not always possible for some utilities because of their predetermined head count, said Steve Pirtle, supervisor 2 with Xcel Energy's Pampa, Texas, field operations.

“There is a shortage of linemen all over the country, and some companies are looking for a quick fix, but there isn't one,” Pirtle said. “It's a matter of getting these guys through the program. Companies need to look forward, be proactive and have a game plan.”

As part of this plan, some utilities are trying to hire journeymen linemen. At Xcel Energy, however, the average tenure at the utility is 27 years, and it is not uncommon for linemen to stay with the utility until they retire, said Steve Crumley, director of talent acquisition for Xcel Energy.

Even contracting companies are finding it hard to find skilled labor. For example, MJ Electric, a union contractor that provides line work nationwide, is facing the same problem as electric utilities.

“We are losing well-experienced linemen and not able to fill in the voids,” said Tom Jones, the New England transmission lead for MJ Electric, a union contractor that specializes in energized work and partners with Ropes That Rescue for training. “We deal with local union halls across the country, and the applicant acceptance rate is dropping.”

Cultivating Leadership

SCE's Arias said he does not expect to get leadership right off the bat out of the linemen's colleges. Instead, a recent graduate must start off as a groundsman, be hired on as an apprentice, next be assigned to a crew for seasoning for a few years and eventually become a foreman.

With the aging workforce retiring and moving on, however, young journeymen are stepping into supervisory roles sooner rather than later in their careers. For example, at AltaLink in Alberta, Canada, some junior staff are running crews, and the crews themselves have become very young, said Darryl Rempel, commissioning and acceptance for AltaLink.

“It's not uncommon to see a first-year journeyman running crews with contractors and utilities,” he said. “This is a lot to expect from a fresh journeyman.”

While most young journeymen put pressure on themselves to advance within a utility, he said it can be challenging for them to run crews because of their lack of historical work experience. Over the next five years, Rempel predicts it will be challenging as far as resources. After that point, he envisions Alberta will have a highly skilled workforce and all Canadian utilities will benefit from it.

“There will be some hurdles along the way, but linemen are up to the task to build and keep the lights on,” Rempel said.

Other utilities also are taking a proactive approach to training future leaders. For example, most of them have an informal mentoring program. At Oncor, the journeymen are responsible for the apprentices, and the crew supervisors are trained on how to transfer their knowledge to incoming workers.

Black Hills Energy assigns one apprentice for every three journeymen on a crew. The utility then moves these apprentices around from one crew to the next so they can benefit from the experience of different foremen and journeymen on the job.

At the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a technical training center coordinates and provides technical training to employees, and the veterans often serve as subject-matter experts. Craig Froh, a transmission line specialist for BPA, said utilities can bridge the generation gap between workers by training older employees alongside younger ones in the latest technologies available.

To ensure apprentices are ready to become managers when their time comes, utilities are creating formal leadership training programs. For example, Xcel Energy created a Path to Leadership program. About 100 employees currently participate in this program, which pairs management candidates with utility leaders. By participating in this program, linemen learn how to successfully move into leadership roles and manage a team. As a result, some field employees have the opportunity to move up through the ranks. Case in point: the former CEO started out at Xcel Energy as a meter reader.

Pirtle said this leadership program helped him to become a better manager, deal with personnel issues and meet with a group of mentors for support and guidance. When he moved from a foreman to a supervisor, he then began participating in another program called New Leader Mentoring, in which he meets with other supervisors to resolve higher-level issues.

In other utilities, such as Santee Cooper, the leadership development program is more informal, with executives mentoring future leaders. For example, George Patrick, the supervisor of transmission lines for Santee Cooper in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, personally works with crew supervisors and tries to include them in planning the budget and making decisions on managing and hiring resources. He also helps them to expand their knowledge, understanding, communications, decision making and management skills so they are prepared to move into his position in the future.

In addition, Patrick assists the training department by conducting formal training programs for apprentices. In his view, a solid training program gives young apprentices the opportunity to develop their knowledge in a controlled environment. Along with on-the-job training by senior linemen, a training program helps to mold and shape apprentices for future growth and development.

“The senior linemen take pride and ownership in what they've built and taken care of,” said Patrick, a 37-year veteran of Santee Cooper. “They want to pass that key on to the younger linemen with the expectation that they will maintain it and operate it better than it is today.”

Developing a Future Workforce

Electric utilities are looking to community colleges and technical trade schools to recruit the next generation of linemen. Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) partnered with Trinidad State Junior College (TSJC) to develop a 15-week pre-apprenticeship program called Rocky Mountain Line School (RMLS). This school was initially located on CSU property, but the program and training yard have since moved to Pikes Peak Community College, an affiliate of TSJC.

“Enrollment continues to be strong, with a backlog,” said Mark Johnson, the CSU North Work Center manager, who has been with the utility for 17 years. “The school has been averaging 25 students per semester and has consistently had a full class that is waiting to get into the program.”

The utility and the school keep the size of the class small by design. That way, they are not flooding the market with candidates that have no jobs waiting for them. At this point, however, the program has a 70% to 80% placement rate. CSU tries to hire students from each class, when possible. In fact, one of the reasons CSU started this school was to stem attrition.

“What happened is that they come here, get the full four years of training, and then they get married, have kids and go back to their hometown,” Johnson said. “We would train them, only to lose them to another utility.”

While Johnson expects the majority of the apprentices to get their first job with another utility, he also predicts they will eventually move back to Colorado to be close to their families.

“We are growing our own, but they can go out and spread their wings,” he said. “They will then come back and form a workforce pool in the future.”

The program is designed around the needs of the electric utility industry. Before starting the pre-apprenticeship program, the project team from CSU that formed the school phoned a list of industry contacts to determine needs, compiled their responses, formed a team and turned to the current apprentices for their feedback. CSU learned other electric utilities were looking for candidates to have such qualifications as their basic safety training out of the way, the ability to climb and the possession of a commercial driver's license.

For the program, the students must buy all their own tools and equipment such as boots, hooks, a climbing belt, safety glasses, gloves and hand tools. To make easier for students to secure supplies, RMLS partnered with Altec Supply and Buckingham Manufacturing to create customized kits with everything the students need for the program.

Like CSU, Ameren also has created a pre-apprenticeship partnership. The utility partnered with Southwestern Illinois College to raise awareness about careers in the power industry. During the first year Ameren Illinois started the program, the utility had 150 applicants for 10 spots.

Ameren has already hired one of the graduates as an apprentice. To ensure it continues to get more successful candidates out of the program, Ameren is constantly refining and improving the program.

Once they complete the program, the graduates are invited to apply for any open apprenticeship jobs. In 2012, Ameren Illinois came up with a new hiring plan to hire 10 apprentices per quarter, for a total of 40 apprentices per year. The Modernization Action Plan program is giving the utility the opportunity to build a second training center in the Belleville, Illinois, area. This will allow the utility to take on even more apprentices in the line department, substation relay tech program and engineering program. In addition, the program will allow the utility's field crews to install smart meters and IntelliRupters from S&C Electric to minimize outages and improve system reliability.

In addition to offering pre-apprenticeship programs, some utilities also are offering internships, which can be a win-win situation, Xcel Energy's Crumley said.

“We get to invest in looking at the talent coming down the road, and it's a win-win for everyone,” said Crumley, whose utility partners with a variety of linemen's schools in the area.

Oncor also sponsors an internship program and invites students from schools such as Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, to work on Oncor's system. These students often learn the same basics as the helpers and apprentices, and they gain this knowledge both in the classroom and the field. Sometimes, students work as interns in between semesters, while others go to school for a semester and then work for a semester. Other times, students do an internship after they have completed their formal training.

Last year, Xcel Energy started a trial internship program at Oklahoma State University in which the students come on board for eight- or 16-week sessions. The internships give the students an opportunity to get out of the classroom and into the real world so they can determine if line work is the right career choice for them. Pirtle said he almost sees the job of a lineman as a lost art, but his utility is trying to get more young people in the trade.

“Fewer and fewer kids want to go that route, but for those with no college plans,” he said. “It's a very rewarding career.”

Five Strategies for Recruiting Tomorrow's Linemen

  1. Get involved. Southern California Edison linemen visit the Los Angeles Trade Technical Center as subject-matter experts to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. “The kids are like sponges,” said Ernie Dominguez, project manager. “They are responsible, fun to teach and they're hungry for a job.”

  2. Identify those who are committed to the trade. Black Hills Energy is hiring candidates who have attended a lineman's school, bought their tools and had experience climbing.

  3. Offer opportunities. Since many apprentices will eventually wind up back in their hometowns, consider offering pre-apprenticeship and internship opportunities.

  4. Start early. Some utilities, like Ameren, are visiting local grade schools to present safety demonstrations. In addition, some utilities, like Lakeland Electric, are partnering with high schools to make the students aware of career opportunities in the power industry.

  5. Forge partnerships. Xcel Energy is partnering with the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), which is working to develop a workforce and build partnerships with governments as well as technical and trade schools. By partnering with CEWD, the utility is trying to ensure it develops the types of candidates it is looking to hire in the future.

Training Today's Apprentices

Electric utilities are faced with the challenge of not only recruiting apprentices, but also training them to be future leaders. Here are five ways to turn today's new field employees into tomorrow's managers:

  1. Modernize training. Xcel Energy is taking videos and integrating them into the training sessions.

  2. Train apprentices on how to use hand tools. “The generation coming up now is very fluent with computers,” said Tim Yuskin, a construction manager for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E). “At the same time, many of the younger guys haven't picked up a wrench or worked with their hands much before they joined the utility. They also have a harder time keeping up with the older guys and doing the hard physical labor.”

  3. Get them in top physical shape. SDG&E built a Fitness and Lifestyle Through Education and Exercise (FLEX) training center, a small gym filled with cardio and strength-training equipment. The apprentices begin each morning with a conditioning workout led by Keoki Kamau, an athletic trainer who worked in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers and the Redskins. They then climb poles located outside the fitness center to gain experience before working on the taller poles on SDG&E's system.

  4. Focus on giving them hands-on experience. At Lakeland Electric's training center, the apprentices do not just work out in the pole yard or learn within the confines of the classroom. Robert Padgett, who has been with the utility for 24 years and runs the training center, often takes them out into the field to perform back-lot work. The utility has 88,000 poles on its system and 15,000 of them cannot be reached by a bucket truck.

  5. Transition knowledge from veterans to apprentices. At Colorado Springs Utilities, journeymen linemen often take time after work to help apprentices learn how to climb or sharpen certain skills in the field, said Mark Johnson.

A Look Inside a High School Training Program

Lakeland Electric is proactive about recruiting the next generation of linemen through its Power Academy at a new high school in Florida.

“We decided to grow our own with the Academy program to keep these students in Lakeland,” said Betsy Levingston, director of training and workforce development for Lakeland Electric. “Fifty percent of people live within 50 miles of where they grew up. We wanted to get them excited in our industry early.”

During their senior year, high school students enrolled in the Power Academy spend 15 weeks shadowing Lakeland Electric employees. They spend six hours a week for five weeks in three job areas learning about the power business, how to climb and the fundamentals of electricity. Situated in a traditional high school, the Power Academy program allows students to use their electives in grades 9 through 12 to complete the program. The students go up on a pole and in a bucket truck as well as into a confined space so they can decide if they can handle working in these conditions.

The students not only graduate with a high school diploma, but also with industry certifications that include electrical basics, power tools and safety. Lakeland Electric already has hired some of the graduates of this program as linemen apprentices.

In Levingston's experience, graduates of the Power Academy are often more loyal to the utility because of its investment in their training and development.

“We wouldn't have such an involvement in their lives if we hired them off the street,” she said. “We have the opportunity to observe them, get to know them and determine their fit with Lakeland Electric. Many of them want to work for us because we have had an impact on their lives.”

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