By Paula Aven Gladych
For Huskie Tools
With Baby Boomers and Generation X workers starting to filter out of jobs and new developments popping up all over, the need for trained lineman isn’t going to decrease anytime soon, says George Speight, an instructor in the electric lineman program at ForsythTech Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a 38-year veteran lineman.
“There is a huge market right now, huge. The attrition rate, people retiring or aging out, has gotten so great [power companies] have gotten behind in the hiring process,” he says. “What that means is they need younger folks to fill those shoes.”
Joshua Burcham, director of technical skills programs at ForsythTech Community College, has been overseeing the lineman program for more than a year.
“In the time I’ve been working with it, I haven’t seen any decline. It is booming,” he says.
ForsythTech offers a leading lineman program in the south. It offers five, nine-week sessions per year, with 24 students per session. The programs fill up months in advance and have an extensive waiting list.
“Last fall, we had a class that was 24 students and all 24 of those students had a job with the same company starting the following Monday,” Burcham says. The December class had 23 students and of the 21 in-state students that the college could track, all of them had a job at the end of the program.
Of course, students don’t leave the program as journeymen linemen. It takes about four years of dedicated work in the industry to achieve that designation, says Speight.
Students in the program earn 288 hours toward their journeyman lineman designation, which requires 4,000 hours to complete, and the hire rate after the program is 85% to 95%, he adds. These students, with their basic lineman education, make on average $18 per hour when they leave the school.
Journeymen linemen make an average of $45 to $50 per hour, depending on the region they are working in. The Pacific Northwest and California pay their linemen more than $100,000 a year, according to data from Indeed.com.
Besides the workforce getting older, electric companies have been completing a lot of mergers so the “structures are changing. The workload is changing,” Speight says. “Infrastructure all across America is going downhill because it hasn’t been maintained properly and [companies] are having to rebuild a whole lot of that stuff. The demand for line workers is very high right now.”
If these graduates can stick with the program and become journeymen linemen, they can write their own ticket, Speight says. They can get a job anywhere in the country because their skills are so in demand and so necessary to maintaining a healthy electrical grid.
“We have employers come to every class to recruit. There are a lot of students that already have offers,” Burcham says.
He adds that he doesn’t know if the demand for linemen will reach a saturation point, like in other trades, but with all of the construction going on across the country and a housing boom that doesn’t seem close to slowing down, the electrical grid has to continue to grow to support it.
Students who graduate the program come out with foundational knowledge of the industry, they know how to climb safely, use lineman tools and understand how everything works. They even get trained on how to work on underground power lines.
Other schools across the country are offering or are thinking of adding lineman training programs.
It is a good job and a stable one, Burcham says. There are not many jobs where a student right out of high school can take a nine-week program and get a job making $18 an hour to start, with full benefits and a retirement plan. If they stick with the job and become a journeyman lineman, they can be making $40 an hour within about five years, Burcham says.
“That’s why a lot of people are wanting to do it,” he adds. ForsythTech has more students than it can accommodate.
The tools to do the job may change over time, but the electrical circuit has been the same for 200 years, Burcham says. ForsythTech tries to keep up with the latest electrical technologies and equipment so its students are better prepared when they enter the workforce.
“There is a huge [worker] shortage on the horizon and we need to anticipate and prepare for that with a lot of these types of jobs, which is something we are looking at, at the college as a whole,” Burcham says. It isn’t just lineman jobs that are in huge demand, but other trades like carpentry, masonry, bricklaying, plumbing, auto body and welding. There is a huge skills gap in the country that needs to be filled.