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Linemen climb to the top of their class

The Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. ' No matter how strong their desire, some students don't realize they're not cut out to be linemen until they're standing on two metal spikes high up on a utility pole.

This semester at Avista Utilities' Jack Stewart Lineman School, four students dropped out of the course too far along for any of the 14 people on the waiting list to get in.

That's too bad, because the industry needs them.

A nationwide shortage of linemen has been building for years, and the situation's no different in the Inland Northwest. As legions of aging utility workers edge closer to retirement, the construction industry continues to boom, boosting demand for power line installation. Making matters worse, a number of utilities discontinued apprentice programs in years of corporate downsizing, meaning fewer workers are proceeding through the ranks.

There will continue to be a shortage until we can get people pumped through, said Don Guillot, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 77, which represents linemen in Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. We do have a problem, but we are trying to address it.

— Partially behind the backlog is the amount of time lineman training takes. Students who complete a four-month course like Jack Stewart and go to work for a utility are just beginning. They must work another four years to attain journeyman status and years more to gain the institutional knowledge currently flowing out of utilities with the retirement exodus.

Mike Hanson, training administrator for Avista's linemen, said the company has been aware of the pending problem for years.

The company has an active apprentice program and the Jack Stewart Lineman School was created in 1993 to address the pending shortage. Inland Power and Light, which recently has been hiring several linemen per year, will begin reaching out to local high school students this spring, hoping to attract more people to the trade, said Marketing Manager Dan Villalobos. Guillot said the IBEW is increasing recruitment of apprentices at high schools and job fairs and is trying to encourage utilities to expand apprentice programs.

Being a lineman is lucrative for those with the fortitude to scale a pole 55 feet high and handle power lines. Graduates fresh out of the training programs are labeled ground men and usually stand to earn &

36;11 an hour in this region. However, within a couple of years, if all goes well, workers earn apprentice ranking and watch their pay rise to &

36;20 an hour. After a couple more years, they can achieve journeyman status and get another &

36;10-an-hour boost.

That's more than &

36;62,000 a year, not including overtime.

Jeremy Lundberg, 33, landed a spot in the current class at Jack Stewart, drawn by the promise of future earnings. At his former job at a paper mill, he said, he would have topped out at &

36;30 an hour after many years of work. The Spokane man sees the promise of that wage within four years as a lineman, and more after that.

It would have taken me a long time to see top dollar, Lundberg said of his last job.

His brother-in-law is a lineman for Inland Power, and Lundberg thought it sounded like good work. The married man with two young children said he's prepared to go anywhere for a job.

Lundberg's willingness to move virtually guarantees him a job. Job placement from Jack Stewart is 80 percent but rises to 100 percent if graduates are willing to relocate, Hanson said. California, Utah, Colorado, Montana and southern Idaho will collectively need close to 400 linemen a year for the next five years due to construction alone, he said. And some of the other states offer much higher wages, though they're frequently accompanied by a higher cost of living.

Some places are offering six months of wages as a signing bonus, Hanson said.

Upfront costs for lineman training are fairly steep. Jack Stewart holds two four-month sessions each year that cost &

36;5,700 for in-state students and &

36;6,500 for out-of-state. Linemen also are required to buy their own gear, which runs another &

36;850 or so.

But the jobs appear to be constantly in demand. Though linemen say winter is the slow season, the February issue of the Northwest Public Power Association's trade magazine, Bulletin, has nine lineman job openings, mostly in Washington. Avista hired nine of the students from the last Jack Stewart session, but students are not guaranteed local positions.

Paying to attend a training program shows potential employers how serious a student is, Villalobos said. An Avista spokeswoman said it's fairly rare for the company to hire someone who hasn't attended a training program.

After hiring program graduates, utilities continue to spend thousands of dollars each year training their linemen until they become journeymen. Hanson said Avista spends &

36;70,000 per year training its apprentices. When the students first go to work for a utility, they initially need to be under someone's supervision all the time, said lead line instructor Bill Magers. For that reason, the power lines students practice on at the school are not energized.

You gotta have what it takes before we get to the electricity part of it, he said.

The Jack Stewart school was named for a former Avista lineman known for mentoring his younger colleagues. Students must be 18 to register and though most are men, four women have graduated from the program since it began.

Safety is a top concern and the class size is capped at 26 to keep the student-to-instructor ratio low. The instructors don't gloss over the potential dangers of the job. On the classroom wall hangs a memorial photograph of a former student who died while stringing power lines for a helicopter company.

The program is intense, meeting eight hours a day, five days a week. Half is spent in the classroom; half outside on the training grounds, climbing poles, tying knots and rigging gear. Two sessions are offered per year: January through April and June through October. There's more room, generally, in the summer session, instructors said. In four months, the students earn 49 college credits through Spokane Community College, which joined with Avista to create the program.

When you take 10 to 18 credits, that's a heavy load, said Linda Poage, who manages SCC's apprentice division.

The school also trains students for other possible careers, perhaps with cable or phone companies or in other trade positions at power companies, said Magers. He and the other instructor, Dave Valandra, have worked to make the program more compatible with other utility companies' needs and more applicable to other career fields.

All the other bargaining unit jobs (at Avista) require what we teach here, said Valandra, who recently retired from 33 years as a lineman for Avista. The course includes instruction on flagging, CPR and forklift operations, among other skills.

But for some, it doesn't seem like work at all.

Jake Booth is 20, from Davenport, Wash., and is so excited to be in the program, he says over and over how awesome it is. An adrenaline junkie who rides motorcycles and snowmobiles, Booth said he's wanted to be a lineman since he was little. He went to college for two years, but hated it. He likes the lineman school because it's more hands-on.

The first day you're out climbing, Booth said. They put you right out there and let you start doing it.

Valandra, however, cautions the students against thinking the work is all about being outside and working with their hands.

It's not just climbing poles, said Valandra, 57. That's not what we do for a living. We work electricity. Climbing the poles is one way to get to the work.

Student linemen at Avista Utilities' Jack Stewart Lineman School in Spokane learn to climb a power pole. AP