Demographics work against the industry:

Just after a series of thunderstorms and tornadoes in central Florida in February, Progress Energy Florida deployed a crew of linemen to restore power, but unlike some hurricanes and windstorms, this particular storm was unexpected; a cold mass brought strong winds that overturned trailers, peeled roofs off their frames and pulled electric poles right out of the ground.

Suddenly the utility company was mobilizing men from its own crews as well as electrical contractors who were already on-site. In some cases, the electric system needed to be entirely rebuilt. Despite several trends underway that have put linemen and their employers under increasing pressure during situations such as these, the crews managed to restore power to the 35,000 customers within a few days. They did it with younger and less experienced, but perhaps better trained, linemen than would have responded to a similar event 20 years ago.

The demographics of line constructors is changing as much as the weather.

“With so many baby boomers retiring, we’re losing expertise faster than we can afford to,” said Max Christofferson, associate professor and program coordinator for line technology at Utah Valley State College in Provo.

The industry was predicting problems decades ago. Now, as baby boomer line constructors approach retirement, the resulting void cannot be filled entirely by those in the apprenticeship and training programs. Most contractors saw it on the horizon long before the labor shortage began. But now that the industry is in the midst of the growing manpower shortage, more problems are cropping up than anticipated.

“There are a lot of things hitting at once,” said Bill Stone, director of the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) in Oregon. “We have a labor shortage, and we’ve been hit with some major storms.”

A perfect storm of issues

Even as the number of journeymen began to decline, the public utilities faced deregulation. In addition, corporations were buying up many of the utility companies. With consolidations, deregulation and efforts to cut costs by the utilities, maintenance of power lines dropped in the 1980s. Linemen today are paying for that neglect with more downed lines in storms.

Cost cutting also affected manpower training; many utilities reduced or eliminated their apprenticeship programs with the idea that if utilities needed the men, they would go to the contractors.

“The manpower shortage is a real force to be reckoned with,” said Christina Ernst, president, Miller Construction Co., Troy, Ill. “All the contractors are bidding for the same people.”

Then there is new construction. In Utah, the Wasatch Front—from Provo to Ogden—is growing at a rate that has required new conductor distribution systems. More linemen will be needed to meet new demands.

At the same time, there is a younger work force migrating up through the ranks, Stone said. While, you can’t front load with on-the-job experience, he said, you can front load with training.

“The training programs have been getting better throughout the past three decades,” Stone said. “In fact, in some cases, journeymen with 40 years of experience have absolutely no training under their belts. Although there is no substitute for real-life experience, apprentices today have the next best thing in the training they’ve received.”

 “You can’t learn it sitting in a classroom,” Ernst said. “We could train 100 men in the next month, but there wouldn’t be enough linemen to teach them,” Ernst said, adding that the ratio is nearly 1 to 1.

The shortage of linemen has slowed linework. According to Stone, it isn’t taking much longer to address outages today than it took 20 years ago. However, the way it is getting done has changed. Equipment improvements have helped. Fewer men climb poles, allowing linemen to stay in the business into their 60s.

Christofferson also thinks better equipment, including the cranes, bucket trucks, digger derricks and even the insulated clothing, has made work easier for the newest generation of linemen as well.

But when it comes to climbing into the bucket truck or up poles, there will likely be considerably more apprentices than the seasoned journeymen. There is a high dropout rate for linemen in JATC and other training programs when they find out what the job entails. Many trainees don’t initially realize just how much outdoor work they will be doing or that they have a fear of heights.

Weather tests shortage

Utilities and contractors have been hit hard in many parts of the country in the past three years with record storms—from hurricanes and tornadoes in Florida, the Gulf Coast and Texas; to ice and snow storms in the Midwest; to destructive winds in the Pacific Northwest.

Midwestern linemen had plenty of opportunity to gain experience during the 2006–2007 winter season. Miller Construction Co. has been at the center of record-breaking storms for the past 12 months. In July 2006, Missouri and Illinois experienced significant damage stemming from a powerful storm. Then, in December, the states were hit again with several ice storms. As a storm prediction came in for the weekend, Ernst began preparing that Friday. The ice storms in December were really unfortunate, Ernst said, adding that, “We were still recuperating from one when the next hit.”

“When we get a call, the first thing we do is call the utilities we’re working for to get linemen released,” she said.

But that particular Friday was different. “With bad weather coming across from the west, the other utilities were reluctant to release crews before they saw where the storm was going. We knew we couldn’t get everyone released,” Ernst said. In fact, by the time they got their men released from one utility, Ameren had already secured enough linemen for itself.

Still, linemen are not only are prepared to travel, they expect to work a lot of overtime, whether experienced or not. In the case of a storm, she said, linemen are always anxious to go. With so much competition, if a utility refuses to release a lineman working for one contractor, another contractor can come in and hire the lineman himself. “You always hope your linemen are loyal,” Ernst said. Even the loyal contractors face difficulties working in storm aftermaths.

“Storm work is such a dangerous time. These men are operating on very little sleep, working in the dark,” Ernst said, and often in windy or wet weather. And with dwindling numbers, keeping the linemen trained and safe becomes a greater priority than ever.

In the case of Ameren, the utility held joint safety meetings every morning at 5:30 with all electrical contractors and tree trimmers, giving those contractors the opportunity to talk about incidents they had run into and situations others can learn from. Ameren, she said, is very proactive that way.

“People can say ‘Here’s what we ran into today. This was a near miss,’” Ernst said. Throughout the ice storms, there were no injuries. That was a tribute to the safety efforts of contractors and the utilities.

“We sent a lot of apprentices on this storm,” she said, “[but] we want to make sure every crew has someone with experience.” Especially, Ernst said, if complicated distribution work is involved.

“We need someone who really knows what they’re doing. The only way to learn is having older, experienced guys out working with them,” Ernst said.

Although the older workers are more experienced, younger workers bring more enthusiasm.

Some say that the younger workers may enjoy working the high-pressure weather situations. Christofferson said he enjoyed the storm work.

“When you have a big power outage in weather like that and then you get everyone back on, it’s like a natural high as you come down off that pole or off that crane. It’s exciting,” he said.

But for some, “As soon as December hits, they decide it’s not for them,” Christofferson said.

Blue skies ahead?

Although there’s now a work force shortage, the challenges may be easier to overcome than in some areas of the industry. Taking advantage of experienced and enthusiastic retired linemen such as Christofferson for training the newcomers may be one of the best strategies the industry has.

“For me, linework was fantastic,” Christofferson said. “I had a fantastic career. I loved traveling, being outside.”

The men and a small but growing minority of women coming out of linemen apprenticeships have the best training possible, according to Christofferson. He often sees his own students leave the program before it is completed to entered IBEW apprenticeships. Either way, he said, the training is getting better, which helps stem some of the loss from manpower shortage.

“I think those young people are going to do really well,” Christofferson said of recent graduates. “I think the future holds technically better-trained guys. They are younger, but they grasp the technical work faster and better than some of us old-timers.”

“I think the future looks really good,” he said. “There are a lot of good young people coming up. Despite what we old-timers sometimes think, there are some really good ones.”    EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.