Developing the Next Generation of Lineworkers

Skilled trades are in high demand, and electrical lineworkers — the people on utility front lines who install and repair the lines and equipment that make up the visible aspects of a utility’s distribution system — are no exception. The Center for Energy Workforce Development estimates that in the next few years, the need for lineworkers will surpass 16,700 individuals. Fulfilling this need is not just a matter of finding the warm bodies to go into the job, but recruiting those with the right mindset and training them to be able to do the job safely and effectively.

The people involved with training public power lineworkers shared their reflections on the apprenticeship and training process.

What Apprenticeship Training Entails and How it has Changed

Apprentice training is a multiyear endeavor representing extensive skills development across many areas.

ElectriCities of North Carolina offers a hybrid in-person and online apprenticeship training program. The online component includes four levels, each with about 20 learning modules, or courses. The in-person component consists of two weeklong trainings that focus on safety. Participants also must complete 2,000 hours of on-the-job training for each level and have a supervisor attest that they are meeting performance requirements.

Craig Batchelor, manager of safety and training at ElectriCities, shared how the training evolved from what had been a solely in-person program consisting of four weeklong training sessions. Batchelor also touted a learning management system that allows students to share updates and track progress online.

Caleb Hall of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, which offers a four-year apprenticeship program, noted that while TVPPA has taken advantage of new technologies to supplement traditional instruction, such as using virtual reality simulations, participants find the instructor-led, hands-on training to be the most effective way to learn the material.

Mike Willetts, director of training and safety at the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, echoed the value of in-person instruction. MMUA’s four-year apprenticeship program also combines an online curriculum with hands-on training that students attend at least four times per year. “The training facility provides an outstanding opportunity for the students to concentrate on technical projects in a protected environment. Students can gain valuable insight on how other utilities may approach a similar situation, plus make valuable connections with other lineworkers and industry suppliers,” noted Willetts.

During these trainings, topics cover everything from electrical theory to proper use of tools and personal protective equipment; safety protocols; construction and maintenance of poles, circuits, and insulated equipment; and more.

Mastering New Skills

Hall shared that recent years have seen discussion topics added at all levels of training around becoming more familiar with distributed energy resource technologies, including troubleshooting and dealing with backfeeding from such assets.

“As the field progresses, a higher level of understanding of new DER-related technologies will be key as more public power systems begin to see these various technologies deployed,” he added.

In North Carolina, Batchelor mentioned a shift to making lineworker training more “all-encompassing,” with added modules on substations and meters. He noted how ElectriCities offers trainings and connections to subject matter experts that support worker development at any level, as lineworkers also benefit from developing leadership and communication skills. Yet, he noted, the apprenticeship training is about starting with the basic linework skills — including safety, electrical theory, climbing, and proper use of tools.

“Having a solid understanding of basic electrical theory, hazard recognition, and proper use of personal protection equipment would be at the top of my list,” said Willetts.

“Apprenticeship is a small piece of developing good quality linemen. Most of that is done at home,” said Batchelor.

Mindset Needed

“It is important that every apprentice understands that it takes time to be a skilled journeyman lineworker. You have to do the work. It can’t happen overnight,” said Willetts. He went on to call out six attributes of people best suited to become successful lineworkers:

  • Be willing to learn.
  • Have a good work ethic.
  • Enjoy working outside in all conditions.
  • Have attention to detail.
  • Enjoy working in a team and helping others.
  • Understand that linework is more than “just a job.”

Batchelor stressed that lineworkers need to be open-minded and flexible.

“For a young apprentice, it is essential that he or she maintain a positive attitude, willingness to accept instruction, ability to work as a team and, finally, physical ability to perform the job,” said Hall. “A general openness to change will be pivotal, as the trade is undergoing dramatic changes in how a lineworker conducts their daily work.”

Hall added that outside of formal training, utilities can foster on-the-job learning opportunities through formal mentorship programs.

Getting Students Interested

Willetts stressed that public power utilities can do a better job of engaging young people in middle school and high school about the array of job opportunities in public power — including beyond linework. He noted that utilities can host projects, contests, and events in schools to raise this awareness.

In Ohio, Cleveland Public Power looked to how it could teach high school students about linework to confront the dual challenges of an aging workforce within the public power utility and a concern about “brain drain” from the city. CPP started an internship program in 2008 in which students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District get both classroom instruction and supervised on-the-job training to learn skills associated with becoming lineworkers — including safety protocols, CPR, customer service, and earning a commercial driver’s license.

Beyond learning how to drive commercial vehicles, students can develop an interest in what it takes to restore power in the city, including seeing how the dispatch center operates. CPP works with school guidance counselors to recruit graduating high school students into the paid internship, which is designed to prepare students to enter apprenticeship programs and includes mentorship opportunities.

Since starting the program, the utility has evolved instruction to include distinct tracks and added opportunities to learn other skilled positions, including electric transmission operators, and cover topics including financial planning.