As infrastructure projects ramp up, the shortage of experienced journeymen lineworkers is creating some work delays and challenges for contractors. Contractors face many issues that coalesce into one challenge—securing enough experienced workers.
From office and management jobs to field line work, things look different in the hiring world. Office staff come in with greater demands, and lineworker apprentices far outnumber the journeymen. According to some contractors, work sites may look different in the future to get more apprentices or early trainees working. By having key journeymen oversee more apprentices sharing specific tasks, projects could be accomplished using the labor that’s available.
Recruiting starts as early as high school. JATCs are expanding education and outreach programs and seeing some results. The southwest Missouri area features “Build My Future” events to show high school students career opportunities in the skilled trades.
The Missouri Valley Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training Program (Missouri Valley JATC), Indianola, Iowa, attends to take part in education and recruiting. Its training program also has a presence at area career days, and it partners with high school guidance counselors across the program’s seven-state area “all to get the word out on apprenticeship opportunities,” said Robbie Foxen, Missouri Valley JATC’s executive director.
Foxen's message to students is that there are alternatives to a traditional four-year university program.
“We try to get the word out that there’s other pathways for these kids, such as an apprenticeship to learn a trade,” he said.
The JATC does outreach on social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat that is aimed at people looking for a first job or different career. It provides information about line work to high school sophomores and juniors.
“Then, when they get closer to graduation, they have a plan for the future,” he said.
The line school class from Dakota County Technical College, Rosemount, Minn., attended a recruiting event at Missouri Valley JATC during National Apprenticeship Week in November 2022. | Missouri Valley Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training Program
In the past year, the Missouri Valley JATC has also offered lineworker internships.
“We have six of them right now from high schools around the Des Moines area,” who come three days a week from 1 to 4 p.m., he said.
”The students are able to learn a lot of the first-year curriculum while they are still completing high school."
Some of their first tasks are learning the very basics of pole climbing and electrical theory. This gives the majority of these students a leg up on other apprentices, since they will graduate high school with considerable training behind them and a sense of what their interests are. Typically, they also have completed some key certifications and qualifications.
For some contractors, the shortage of experienced workers may still be a problem now or will be in the near future, Foxen added. Completing an apprenticeship can take 3½ to 4 years, so programs across the country are making a critical effort to get as many lineworkers through the training process as possible.
Among those completing their program, Foxen said, “you can pretty much go anywhere you want in the country, as journeymen linemen are in high demand.”
Experienced lineworkers are also in great demand and those in the field may be choosing to retire earlier than in the past. The high number of individuals retiring means that contractors and utilities must compete for the veteran lineworkers who are still available. Utilities offer more job security with less travel, while contractors tend to offer more hours, more overtime and more in their paychecks.
Although the growing number of apprentices and trainees entering training programs offers long-term solutions, the short term may be more challenging.
“We’re constantly thinking outside the box to try to get more apprentices out there,” Foxen said, by giving them work that is less technical, requires less expertise and can safely be accomplished with the experience they have. One way to help make that possible is to create more classifications in the industry.
Some of these classifications could be identified specifically for work by apprentices; for instance, when the power is off. Classifications could include a tree-trimming apprenticeship that could be done with multiple apprentices and a more experienced worker.
Underground wire and cable splicing apprenticeships may be another area where workers with more recent and ongoing training can safely contribute.
“Creating more classifications within our industry should eventually help us man the work and go out and bid more work,” Foxen said.
More work ahead
Funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act rolling out this year means more projects on the way. These projects will include electrical upgrades to accommodate green energy, solar installations and transmission grid improvement plans.
Electric vehicle charging stations, for instance, continue to be installed across the country. Foxen said that while lineworkers don’t connect the actual charging stations, they help with the related infrastructure by installing the transformer connections to feed necessary power, including upgrades to capacity with larger wires. Without that increased capacity, the charging stations won’t serve the number of cars coming. into the market.
Challenges vary by region. Contracting construction company Michels Power Inc., Neenah, Wis., takes on line work projects across the Midwest. Troy Schneider, Michels Power’s senior vice president, has been heavily involved in all aspects of workforce recruiting and retention on the state and national level.
“We really don’t have a lack of people that are applying for the apprenticeships,” he said. In fact, new recruits are populating waiting lists to get into the district’s apprenticeships.
So, to keep providing opportunities for those apprentices to train and work their way into journeyman status, Schneider said, “we’re trying to create consistent work with our customers rather than ramping way up during certain times of year and then ramping way down.”
There are also hiring challenges on the office side that transcend the work of power line contractors. He points out that, like many companies, contractors are struggling to retain employees on the management and administrative side as demand and wages are going through the roof. Today, he noted, office personnel and managers apply to job openings with a resume, cover letter and a third piece of paper.
“I call it a demand letter, and they lay out exactly what it’ll take for them to come work for us,” Schneider said.
Such requests include, for example, “I want to work from home three days a week,” or “I don’t want to travel more than 10% of designated work hours.”
“So they’ll lay out all these demands, and if you don’t give that to them, they just say, ‘Well, that’s fine, I’ve got three other people that will hire me,’” he said.
Mike Starner, executive director for outside line safety at NECA, speaks to a pre-apprentice class training with Northwest Line JATC, Vancouver, Wash. | NECA
Knowing this, some companies are raising their incentives. That can include promising to meet the individual’s demands and pay considerably more than their current employer does.
“Ironically, though, if we have 10 people leave on the management side, seven of them are coming back within six months,” Schneider said.
That’s partly because some employers are creating unrealistic expectations for jobs. They may offer a high salary, but then saddle the individual with work that traditionally was done by multiple people. The newly hired manager finds that they must make all their decisions without support, so they eventually look for other opportunities, often back to their original employer.
Relatively high salaries for journeymen also mean that they don’t stay as long as their parents’ generation did. When in the past lineworkers stayed in the workforce until the age of 60, today they often leave in their 40s or 50s.
“The average retirement, in my opinion, is going to go to 50 very quickly,” Schneider said. “It’s not just wages, but their pensions and everything else that we pay right now.”
While the labor pool will likely be larger and more experienced in a few years, Schneider, like Foxen, predicts that the industry may have to change the configuration of job sites to keep up with the growing number of projects and the loss of skilled workers to retirement.
The industry thus far looks promising from a contractor’s perspective, with many opportunities for work. Training program goals include knowing that when a company bids on a new project, it will have the labor needed to get the work done.
While the labor pool will likely be larger and more experienced in a few years, the industry may have to change the configuration of job sites to keep up with the growing number of projects and loss of skilled workers to retirement.
For the American Line Builders (ALB) chapter of NECA, which covers the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, line work is active and well-staffed, said Kevin Moran, ALB’s executive director.
“The jobs are definitely there and there’s definitely a lot of work,” he said.
However, he too predicts that the large number of expected retirements in the near and long term puts a high demand on new recruiting, as well as getting the new recruits trained and onto job sites.
ALB has supported internships through its contractors, to serve communities where the contractors operate.
“I think there’s an overall effort of promoting the industry, promoting blue collar jobs as viable career paths for a middle-class lifestyle,” Moran said.
When it comes to training apprentices through the program and safely serving contractors and their customers, “I think the industry is trying to get more creative to promote the industry as a whole,” he said.
Header image: Northwest Line JATC