The Final Frontier
Originally published December 31, 2012
Nearly two decades ago, Peggy Owens began learning how to be a lineworker at Seattle City Light in Washington state. At the end of a grueling pre-apprenticeship program that lasted six months, she was tested on her climbing skills, her physical fitness. Owens made the cut, but that was just the beginning. She went directly into the four-year apprenticeship program at the utility.
“It was tough stuff,” said Owens. And she’s not just talking about the physical and mental requirements of the job. “There was some resentment, some hostility, toward me as a woman,” she added.
That attitude was typified by an expression that is common: “If this job were easy, women would be doing it.”
Instead of talking back, Owens walked away from cutting remarks. She admits there were times when she went home in tears. “Some of the men thought it was fun to make me cry,” she said. “And they were trying to get rid of me.” But they didn’t succeed. “Every morning, I put my boots on and went back to work.”
When Owens passed all her tests and became a journey level lineworker, things began to change. “The men knew I was here to stay.”
Her experience has taught her that a woman training to become a lineworker cannot take everything personally. “You have to be able to brush off the comments.”
Owens worked on a two-person line crew that handles troubleshooting for the utility and is now a transmission line/right of way crew chief in the vegetation management department taking advantage of her new arborist certification.
About the time Owens was starting to learn her trade, another woman—on the opposite side of the country—was doing the same. Rose Foster joined Santee Cooper’s line crew as a temporary worker. After several months, she applied for a permanent position, and began doing what is called “grunt work,”—digging trenches and delivering materials to other crew members. But that didn’t matter. “I fell in love with the job and the craft itself,” said Foster.
Over the next five years, she progressed from Class C—the lowest level—to Class A—the highest. “Initially, I thought I would never make it,” said Foster. It didn’t help that a couple of the crew members told her she’d never make the grade. But Foster persevered and is now the distribution training instructor for Santee Cooper.
Echoing Seattle City Light’s Owens, Foster said: “This is not a profession for the faint of heart—or the thin-skinned.”
The ability to stand one’s ground in the face of personal affronts is still a necessary quality for any woman who wants to be a lineworker. The culture is often harder to deal with than the required work. It takes a variety of strengths to succeed in what has traditionally been a man’s world.
One person who knows what it takes—physically and mentally—is Alice Lockridge, an exercise physiologist and apprenticeship educator at Seattle City Light. She has helped many women become successful in physically demanding careers. Before working as the employee fitness coordinator at the utility, Lockridge had helped to train 21of the first women firefighters in Seattle. “The electric utility measured the current workforce’s physical and mental abilities needed to be successful at linework and extrapolated that data to determine how strong and smart the candidates for our apprenticeship program needed to be.”
It is essential to trust the person who’s in the bucket with you, said Bridget Reiser, a journey level lineworker at Tacoma Power in Washington state. “If there’s missed communication, the situation could be unsafe. Maximize your communication skills to help optimize your safety and success.”
It takes a certain personality type to succeed, said Susan Blaser, the coordinator of the Electric Utility Line Technician program offered by Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo. A journey level lineworker, she knows whereof she speaks. “You can’t have a chip on your shoulder.”
Changing attitudes—Things have changed since Blaser began her apprenticeship in 1989. They’ve gotten better, she said. “But that’s because women are generally more accepted in the workplace. The work culture has to change.”
The proof is in the pudding, said Bill Stone, director of the NW Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which operates a line school. “Quite a few women have done well as lineworkers, and once they show they can do the job, the acceptance level goes up.”
While the times have changed, not everyone has changed with the times, said Tacoma Power’s Reiser. “There are some great guys out there. Some of the guys I work with say: if you can do your job, I don’t have a problem. There are a few, however, who think that women are just taking jobs away from men.” And despite her journey level status, said Reiser, she is occasionally treated like an apprentice.
Like Reiser, Seattle City Light’s Owens believes that attitudes are slowly changing. Recently, she asked a new journey level lineworker if he had worked with women before. The man, who was new to Seattle City Light and assigned to partner with Owens, said he personally had no problem working with women. “Eventually, the more women who are present in all parts of the workforce, the fewer problems men will have working with them,” said Owens.
That’s a reflection of a culture change, said Metropolitan Community College’s Blaser. “The old-school guys had wives who didn’t work. Today, both husband and wife are working.”
In the case of Nettie Dokes, resentment stemmed from a lawsuit in the 1980s that led to the sudden hiring of many more women and minorities by Seattle City Light. “Women made up nearly half of my pre-apprenticeship class,” she said. “The crew chiefs weren’t happy.”
In her first evaluation, Dokes was told she had an inability to learn, dispite successful experience in the military and a college degree. But the problem was one of unfamiliar terminology she said. “I was told to do a job, but didn’t understand the language used to describe the job. And often, there was no context for my task to the job, so I didn’t understand the objective,” said Dokes. “I needed to see the big picture, that’s how I learn.”
Dokes, the first African-American woman lineworker in the country, is now the manager of technical metering at the utility.
Things have changed a lot over the past 25 years, said Paul Schell, a journey level lineworker and customer service line crew coordinator at Grays Harbor Public Utility District in Washington state. “But it’s a slow process, and we’re not even close to where we should be. The believers are still in a minority.”
Recruiting resources—Women like Santee Cooper’s Foster prove that it can be done. “Becoming a lineworker can open doors, but there’s not much interest,” she said. “Women aren’t beating down our door to become lineworkers.”
So utility recruiters are opening doors in their communities—and doing it in a very targeted fashion.
“The first question I’m asked by other utilities is: Where do you find all the women?” said Seattle City Light’s Lockridge. “I often say to them: If you can’t find women who want to be lineworkers, you’re not looking.”
Lockridge and others from the utility approach women’s rugby and lacrosse teams. “We get to know women skydivers, boxers and rock climbers,” she said. “There are a variety of recreational teams in the community that can help you find women who would be successful and enjoy linework.”
School teachers—including physical education instructors—are another resource, said Lockridge. “We tell them we’re looking for girls—and boys—who are risk takers, who are smart and who are looking for work outdoors.” Sometimes, she adds, the utility even recruits the teacher.
Seattle City Light only hires pre-apprentices when there are several job openings. “We find the comerade of group hires works better than dribbling in new hires one-at-a-time,” said Lockridge. “A single woman brought in alone is a set-up for failure and wasted resources.”
Lineworkers from Grays Harbor PUD have visited local schools in a bucket truck to spark interest in linework, said the utility’s Schell. One student, a national merit scholar, decided she wanted to become a lineworker and is now an apprentice. “Grade school is the place to start,” said Schell. “But candidates are more likely to come from a community college.”
A major challenge, said NW Line’s Stone, is finding the women who are interested in working in this trade—and the construction trades in general. Retention also is an issue. A lot of the women who become lineworkers move on to managerial or training positions, he said. “We need more women on the job to serve as mentors.”
In a bid to seek candidates for its line school, line apprenticeship, and powerline clearance tree tirmmer apprenticeship, NW Line plans to post an outreach video on its website and on Facebook, said Jenna Smith, training coordinator and a journey-level power line clearance tree trimmer and lineworker. She points to one reason why it’s hard to find women who want to do line work—the small pool of candidates with the right skills, knowledge and attitude to be successful. “Culturally, it’s a very non-traditional job, more so than most other types of non-traditional jobs,” said Smith.
Melinda Nichols knows all about the challenge of finding women for linework jobs. “I’ve been in the enviable role of trying to recruit women and people of color into linework for 25 years,” said the apprenticeship program manager at the Washington state’s Department of Labor & Industries.
Several things work well, she said. One is to use women lineworkers to attract women to the trade. “It’s a powerful tool.” Nichols also suggests making linework “hip”—the thing to do to help the community and support fellow citizens. And like Seattle City Light’s Lockridge, Nichols looks for women athletes. “One of the women I recruited was an NCAA shot put champion,” she said.
Every now and then, word of mouth plays a role. Seven years ago, Tacoma Power’s Reiser was working as a temporary meter reader when she met a friend at a service station where both were fueling their vehicles. Another woman overheard Reiser say she wanted to learn the lineworker trade and passed the information to Tacoma Power. Although Reiser had applied for a permanent position at Seattle City Light, the Tacoma utility acted first. “I was in the right place at the right time,” said Reiser.
Many utilities admit only current employees into their apprenticeship programs. But Seattle City Light hires from the outside as well as within. Karen DeVenaro, the utility’s apprenticeship manager, thinks this has accounted for the program’s greater diversity.
Seattle City Light’s success rate is admirable. Approximately 90 percent of those in the apprenticeship program become journey level workers. Little wonder that other utilities have contacted DeVenaro for advice and suggestions . “Over the years, many utilities from several states and even nearby Canadian utilities have approached us and brainstormed strategies to attract, teach and retain women and minorities in the utility trades,” she said. “We’ve gladly shared information with them all.”
Working with community colleges—A number of utilities have partnered with community colleges to support the training of the next generation of skilled workers. In 2007, Kansas City Power & Light and Platte Clay Electric Cooperative in Missouri approached Metropolitan Community College about preparation training for lineworker careers. “We developed a one-year certification program,” said the college’s Blaser, female journey-level lineworker. The program, which accepts about 30 people a year, charges $11,500 for in-state students and $16,500 for out-of-state students. Several scholarships are available.
To find candidates for the program, Blaser visits YWCAs, schools and athletic competitions. The college also advertises in the inner city. “We want to provide job opportunities for all women and minorities.”
This year, six people who completed the lineworker course were hired by Kansas City Power & Light, an investor-owned utility, as line crew ground workers.
Line schools—Another source of women and minority lineworker candidates is the line school.
“Women aren’t flocking to line schools,” said NW Line’s Stone. “But those women who do attend and are successful tend to do well in the trade.” And line schools are good, he adds, because they are open-door institutions.
NW Line sponsors pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. The organization offers two scholarships annually for the school. In addition, Washington state women can apply for a VOLTA (Vocational Outside Line Training Academy) scholarship. Over the next three years, 10 VOLTA scholarships, federally funded through ANEW (Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Employment for Women) in Seattle, will be available. This kind of financial help has shown to be one of the ways that helps increase the diversity of the candidate pool available to utilities when hiring for line apprenticeships.
“Line schools are a good resource,” said Nicole Aiello, public relations specialist at Santee Cooper. “Graduates have a head start. They know what linework entails.” She added that the utility has hired a transmission lineworker from a local line school.
Workforce diversity—One goal of many public power utilities is to employ a workforce that looks like the community they serve.
“We always talk about needing more women journey level workers, but we need more women doing all types of jobs,” said NW Line’s Stone. “We need women in the warehouse, in dispatch, in everything involving operations.” He believes that the more women there are in the workforce, the greater the acceptance of women.
Linework, said Labor & Industries’ Nichols, is the “final frontier.” Of all the trades, she believes line is the hardest. “It requires a great deal of stamina, courage, strength and intellectual capacity.”
But, she added, focusing on linework may miss the point, she said. “We can keep pushing this one profession, but we shouldn’t use lineworkers as the canary in the mineshaft. Where are the women and minorities in utilities, period?”
The commitment to hire women—and minorities—comes from the top, said Grays Harbor’s Schell. Nichols, the state’s apprenticeship manager, agrees. “If there’s no support from the top—and from the supervisors, the crew chiefs—there won’t be a diverse workforce.”
When she was at Seattle City Light, Nichols hired Nettie Dokes. “It took a commitment on the part of everyone involved to help her succeed.”
It also took a restructured training course, said Dokes. “The program established strong management, with direct access to the deputy superintendent.” That gave program management a voice, and they used it, said Dokes. “They asked: how can we best educate adults to succeed as lineworkers?” From those answers the pre-apprentice lineworker and updated apprenticeship training program was developed.
Apprenticeship course managers need direct access, said Dokes. “They can’t be stuck under someone else’s department.” They can’t reflect only the perspective of human resources, she said.
“If the program managers don’t have the clout, you’re just lost in the noise.” All the pieces have to be in place, said Dokes. And for her, they were. “We were the how-to model for a successful and diverse, lineworker apprenticeship program.”
First All-Female Lineworker Course
Normally, the Los Angeles Trade Technical College offers its lineworker course during the school year. But in 2010, it held the course during the summer, compressing it into 12 weeks from the usual 16.
The college did something else out of the ordinary. It enrolled only women in the course.
“We wanted to attract more women to the lineworker course,” said Candy Torres, job placement advisor for the college’s workforce and economic development department. “We had collaborated with a non-profit organization—Women in Non-Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER)—on other workforce projects, so we proposed the idea of an all-female lineworker course.”
WINTER liked the idea, and used federal stimulus funding to support the program.
“We targeted unemployed and underemployed women who lived in the greater Los Angeles area,” said Torres. The college reached out to potential candidates through career fairs, community events and workforce centers. Of the 56 women who attended an orientation meeting, 46 applied for the course and 32 enrolled. Of these women, 19 successfully completed the program.
The course was divided into field work and classroom instruction, with the college’s Ken Bushman teaching the field work. “Climbing a pole is just a commute to work,” he said. But it’s what happens next that’s important. “Once you’re up the pole, you have to be able to work, and that requires good mechanical ability.”
There are a lot of tasks a lineworker must do, said Bushman. Among them: pulling guy wires, hanging single and double arms and transformers. As part of their rigging work, the women learned how to tie 15 knots while blindfolded. “That way they build it into their muscle memory, they’ll have a feel for it.”
Bushman also had each woman act as a foreman, leading a crew of classmates through such tasks as setting, anchoring and transferring poles. “They had to plan the work and hold a tailgate safety meeting.”
The gaff—a climbing hook—is a lineworkers’ lifeline. Bushman taught the students how to inspect and sharpen a gaff, how to maintain it to specifications and how to test it to ensure it’s serviceable.
Preparing for the job market—During the course, the women participated in mock interviews and learned how to write a resume. In addition, Bushman encouraged them to monitor the websites of utilities in the area for job opportunities.
The college also invited nearby utilities to attend the training sessions. Among those that visited the site were the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison.
The women who completed the course were proud of what they had accomplished, said Bushman, and rightfully so. “I was amazed at what these women did,” he said. It changed my attitude about what a woman can do.”
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