There is a lot to see from the top of The Playground—timeworn Army barracks, decommissioned mortar carriers, and decaying structures that once held 2,700 Nazi prisoners of war.
But what Jacob Hall can see most clearly is his future.
“My heart is beating so fast right now,” Hall says from atop a 65-foot-tall pole. “I’ve never been up this high. How about it?”
Hall is on his third day in the Power Line Worker Training School, located at Pickett Park, adjacent to Fort Pickett, a World War II-era Army base near the town of Blackstone in south-central Virginia. It is his first day on The Playground, a collection of electrical equipment, crossarms, and two dozen power poles of varying heights that he must master as a first step to becoming an electric utility lineman.
He is already certain that he has made the right career choice.
“I want to go back up,” Hall says with a grin.
Seventy-five years ago, the U.S. Army trained tens of thousands of baby-faced recruits at Fort Pickett before shipping them out to the European Theater. Now, a different kind of training goes on at the 42,000-acre camp, home to both the Virginia Army National Guard and Southside Virginia Community College’s (SVCC) Occupational/Technical Center.
The Power Line Worker Training School represents a novel partnership between Virginia’s electric cooperatives and the state community college system. While still in its infancy, the school presents a model for co-ops nationwide to address a looming shortage of lineworkers while furthering a well-paying vocation that can blunt the migration of young people out of rural America.
“It’s a win for the students because they can come here and get an education that’s going to allow them to get a career,” says Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC) in Crewe, Va., and a driving force behind the creation of the school. “It’s a win for the co-ops because we have the opportunity to get an expanded talent pool to hire from. And it’s a win for the college because they’ve got a program that more students are coming into.”
Within weeks of graduation in May, all 11 members of the first class—the “Power Line 11”—received job offers, some of them at electric co-ops. A second class of 19 is underway. A third is almost fully booked for this fall, and officials at the college are filling slots in the program for 2017.
“I want the certificate from this school to signify that this individual knows how to work utilizing safe working practices and techniques,” says John Lee, president and CEO of Chase City, Va.-based Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, who was also instrumental in starting the program. “They are going to know what to do, they are going to be aggressive about getting to it, and they are going to be good people who add value to your organization.”
‘A Perfect Storm’
The school is the outgrowth of a simple idea. Instead of extolling the virtues of your company to high school students in a half-empty auditorium on career day, why not show them firsthand?
Three years ago, Southside Electric launched its “Day in the Life of a Lineman” program. It brings high schoolers—about 150 in the 2016 school year—to the co-op’s district offices to mingle with linemen, check out bucket trucks, put on climbing gear, and learn what the job entails.
But when inquisitive students asked about a career in line work, Edwards could do little more than point them toward various lineman training programs, all outside the state of Virginia and all very costly.
Edwards and Lee say they lamented the fact that kids from Southside Virginia were leaving for Georgia and maybe never coming back. “So we thought, what if we could start one here so the students in Virginia don’t have to go so far out of state?” Edwards says.
He found a partner in the Virginia Community College System, where officials were launching an initiative to promote job skills in the “rural horseshoe,” an arc in the state where half-a-million people lack a high school education.
“Our aim is to ensure that Southside Virginia is poised to bring the benefits of a work-ready workforce to our region by focusing on career fields where there are current and projected shortages of qualified workers. So when the electric cooperatives approached us about establishment of a power lineworker training program, they got our attention,” says SVCC President Dr. Al Roberts.
“As a rural community college, it’s a constant struggle for us to identify programs that will allow students to stay home and have viable employment,” adds Keith Harkins, vice president of workforce and continuing education at SVCC. “I deal with companies all the time that say, ‘Here’s what we need. Let us know when it’s ready.’ That doesn’t work.”
In June 2015, Edwards and Lee met with representatives of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives (statewide) and SVCC to adopt a plan to use $300,000 from the Virginia Community College System as seed money.
In October, the statewide association and SVCC secured a $200,000 matching incentive grant from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s inaugural Competition for Talent Solutions. Virginia’s 13 co-ops pledged cash or in-kind donations for the next five years. In all, the $1.2 million school went from concept to full operation in less than a year.
“Purely from an industry standpoint, developing this school makes a lot of sense, given the existing and growing need for lineworkers,” says Richard G. Johnstone Jr., president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. “But it offered a much larger opportunity, as well, to support the core co-op principle of concern for the communities we serve. It was great to watch things accelerate as one co-op after another lined up to support this.”
The location of the program was as fortuitous as the financing. Pickett Park had wide swaths of open land on which to build a state-of-the-art facility for trainees. Southside Electric has a substation there. SVCC operated a commercial driver’s license program on site so students could pick up another useful job certificate. Enrollees mostly commute from their homes, in Jacob Hall’s case from South Hill, about 30 miles away. But Nottoway County, home to the fort, is renovating a set of barracks as a $15-a-night, 17-person dormitory for traveling students.
“This is so successful because of the business partnership. Industry has come to us and said, ‘We need people, and we will help you financially put the program together.’ That’s the model for success,” says Mary Jane Elkins, executive director of the SVCC Foundation, the college’s financial support arm. “So it was a perfect storm.”
Clyde Robertson was content in retirement, tending to his African violets and occasionally dropping off biscuits at a drive-through window to his daughter, a member services representative at Southside Electric. He had earned the rest after 42 years in the field, 32 of them with Southside Electric, before he turned in his hard hat at the end of 2013.
After visiting his daughter one morning at the co-op, Robertson heard someone hollering for him. Turning, he felt a hand reach out and grab him. “You’re just the man I wanted to talk to,” said Southside Electric lineman Brad Ashwell, an architect of The Playground.
And Robertson, 63, felt retirement slipping away from him.
“Clyde is a great teacher. He is a perfect balance between firm and patient,” says Lee of Mecklenburg Electric. “If he trains them right and sends them out into the world, they’re going to thrive and will make great utility employees for the rest of their careers. I think he knows that, appreciates that, and respects that.”
The school is based on a model curriculum from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which designs programs and assessments for more than 70 craft areas. Brad Wike, a retired lineman with contractors and investor-owned utilities, helps Robertson teach the course.
For example, while climbing skills are important, Robertson says it’s essential to expose trainees to a variety of situations, from hanging wires to simulating a pole-top rescue with a 175-lb. mannequin.
One day, he cut the lines his pupils had built at The Playground, buried part of the circuit under a large tree limb, and summoned them from bed at 3 a.m. to get a feel for overnight power restoration.
“Our first class was like a bunch of wild chickens,” Robertson says in an easygoing drawl. “Somebody would pull a cellphone out, and the next thing you know, about half of them was over here looking at the cellphone. I think we got it straight the first day with this [second] class. We didn’t take the phones away from them. We just set some rules.”
Tuition runs $11,800, but students can get a lot of financial help. Under the new Workforce Credential Grant program, championed by state Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, who represents Southside Virginia, students from Virginia will pay $4,200 for the program.
Also helping were three $1,000 scholarships from the Virginia, Maryland, & Delaware statewide, which received a 2016 Chancellor’s Award for Leadership in Philanthropy from the community college system for its work on the program. The statewide’s non-profit foundation is continuing to offer students from co-op service areas the opportunity to apply for $1,000 scholarships.
“It’s less expensive than the Georgia school, but we’re more focused on providing a really good value,” says Brad Furr, director of operations for Southside Electric.
Case in point: Basic traffic-control flagging, a necessity for roadside projects, was added to the curriculum. That provides graduates with another credential, along with CPR, occupational safety, and a commercial driver’s license.
“We continue to look at things we can add based on our needs,” Furr says. “We want this to be a premier program, not just a baseline.”
‘Behind the 8-ball’
Clint Card sees a worker scarcity storm on the horizon. It won’t hit today, but it will soon enough, and the success of the school will help to determine whether it passes quickly or clouds co-op operations for years.
Twenty-seven years ago, Card started out as a meter reader and groundman at Mecklenburg Electric, spending most of his time with a crew—a go-fer, really, getting this, fetching that, and learning what linemen needed before they went up a pole. After four years, he strapped on a set of hooks and started his apprenticeship.
“In the past, when major turnover was no concern, we had the opportunity to train a new hire three or four years before putting them into the lineman apprentice program. We no longer have that luxury, and in fact, a new hire must hit the ground running. They’ve got to come prepared because within a year or two, we expect them to put on a set of hooks, start climbing, accomplish some basic tasks on de-energized lines, and begin the long process of becoming a journeyman lineman,” says Card, manager of operations for the cooperative’s Chase City district. “Years ago, I had four years to prepare and learn before entering the apprentice lineman program. And when you think about it in those terms, we’re behind the 8-ball. We have a lot of people who will soon be eligible to retire … and five years from now, I am concerned about where the new talent comes from and how well-prepared they are when they get here. This school addresses both those issues for me.”
The numbers bear out Card’s fear. The Center for Energy Workforce Development, which is backed by NRECA, trade associations, and utilities, examines job categories key to the industry. According to its latest data, electric utilities could lose as much as 40 percent of the lineworker population to attrition and retirement between 2015 and 2024. Twenty-three percent of lineworkers are over age 53, according to the center’s 2015 report, Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline.
“You’ve got retirements coming up because of the aging of a very large generation,” says Johnstone of the statewide association. “But you’ve also got another factor, which is that the Great Recession caused some folks to delay their retirement. Because of these two factors, I think we’re going to see a lot of retirements in the next few years.”
Utilities are hardly alone in confronting a dearth of skilled-trade workers. Harkins of SVCC says years of inattention have left a gaping hole in segments of the rural workforce.
“In the last 10 years, four-year degrees were pushed so hard that areas in the skilled trades got little to no attention. Our high school technical programs were defunded because they were expensive,” Harkins says.
The lack of meaningful careers is particularly acute in struggling regions like the one SVCC serves, which includes 10 counties in southern Virginia plus the small city of Emporia. Almost as many people commute to work out of the area—37,000—as live and work in the area, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
It’s no wonder utility jobs are so welcome. VEC data show that utility workers have the highest average weekly wage in the region at $1,766. That’s nearly three times the regional average of $680 across all industries. The average salary for an experienced lineworker in the region tops $70,000. And opportunities are sure to open up—among all utilities in the SVCC region, 27.1 percent of employees are over age 55.
Harkins knows that hiring a few young linemen will not reverse the economic course of a region that has shed manufacturing jobs by the thousands. But to him, Southside Electric’s “Day in the Life of a Lineman” is a starting point to direct high schoolers toward rewarding careers, no matter the business.
“That’s the jewel,” he says. “Not just for cooperatives, but for every industry struggling with retirement and workforce issues. That’s what they ought to be copying. You get three or four of those going in other professions, and then we can work with them to design programs like this one. That’s how you start to make an impact.”
Photo Gallery | Power Line Worker Training School
Luke Storey is returning from his first day with an overhead crew at Southside Electric. The enthusiasm in his voice is unmistakable.
“For the first month or so, I was on the underground crew. Now, we just switched crews, and I’m working overhead. I got to climb some poles and tie some wire,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to be in the situation that I’m in right now.”
Storey, 19, was part of the first class at Fort Pickett. A 2015 graduate of Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Va., south of Richmond, he was working as a pipe insulator and farm manager when he learned about the school.
“I had planned on going to the program in Georgia, but when I found out about this, I hopped on it,” he says. “I’d much rather be an hour away from my parents than a couple of states away.”
About three-quarters of the way through training, Storey submitted a job application to Southside Electric. He landed an interview, did well, and started work in mid-May, less than a week after graduation.
“I was really excited. It was a huge relief, being out of work for the duration of the school, except for some work on the weekends,” he says, adding that he plans to set a standard as a member of the Power Line 11.
“There’s a little bit of pressure behind you from the school. The reputation of the school is going to come back to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it in your profession,” Storey says.
As seasoned linemen know, training never stops. Storey recently completed a week at the Lineman Training School that the statewide association operates in Palmyra, Va., near Charlottesville. Graduates who wind up at investor-owned utilities, contractors, or municipal systems will undergo similar preparation to become apprentice linemen.
“It’s an investment for us,” says Furr of Southside Electric. “If they end up with a contractor or a neighboring co-op, guess what? During an outage restoration situation, we call upon the contractors or the neighboring co-ops. So it’s going to come full circle. Odds are someday, our paths will cross again.”
Next up: expanding the base of the program. A briefing on the school will be on the agenda later this year when Virginia co-op CEOs meet with their counterparts in Pennsylvania.
“That’s the first step in spreading the word outside our three-state area at that meeting,” says Lee of Mecklenburg Electric. “We’ve filled up three classes with basically word-of-mouth advertising. We’ve just scratched the surface. I think there’s a lot more to be done.”