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Demand for Substation Techs Rises: Programs around the country are preparing students

By Susan DeGrane | Mar 15, 2024
Demand for Substation techs rises. This New Mexico switchyard was constructed by Dacon Corp. substation apprentices and technicians.Photo by Dacon Corp.
With the growth in green energy projects and the need to build and replace infrastructure, the demand for substation technicians is rising.

With the growth in green energy projects and the need to build and replace infrastructure, the demand for substation technicians is rising, according to Robbie Foxen, executive director of Missouri Valley JATC, which trains substation technicians in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“Any time you put in a wind or solar farm, the power goes to the collector grid, basically a substation,” he said. “Substations are needed to transform the voltage into lower or higher voltage for customer use.”

About a decade ago, Foxen worked with electrical contractors to establish Missouri Valley’s Substation Technician apprenticeship program. The 3½-year program has grown in the last eight  years, Foxen said. “We started with a class of 10 apprentices. Now we have about 60.”

“In the Midwest, we’re seeing lots of new construction and population growth,” he said. “In older urban areas, we’re seeing older structures struggling to maintain reliability. When you add EV charging stations, that puts more strain on the electrical grid. Substations have to be upgraded.”

Co-developed by the Electrical Training Alliance, Missouri Valley’s Substation Technician program is approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. That enabled Southwestern Line Constructors AJATC to use the program as a template to start its own program in 2021. It now has 62 apprentices.

“We saw a demand for substation technicians,” said Alex Trujillo, executive director for Southwestern Line Constructors, which prepares people to work in Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. “Robbie and I are good friends and we both agreed it didn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Substation technician apprentices spend all 7,000 hours focusing on substation work, unlike line apprentices who get 1,000 hours of on-the-job substation training and move on. 

“They’re retaining that special knowledge and they’re trained for that specific setting, which is why contractors like the program,” Foxen said. 

Substation work

Substation work ranges from changing out insulators and testing transformers to building entire substations as large as 50 acres. “Substation technicians are basically capable of taking a green space in a corn field to a turnkey operation,” Foxen said. 

Dacon Corp., Deer Park, Texas, handles substation construction contracts ranging from $2–$3 million. Much of the work comes from solar and wind farms in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas, said Jeff Muschalek, Dacon general manager and a Southwestern Line Constructors trustee. 

Dacon employs about 10 substation apprentices from Southwestern Line Constructors, and eight from Southeastern Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training, serving Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. 

Substation technicians often coordinate with engineers and project managers, while working in the field with journeymen, foremen, groundhands and other civil workers, Muschalek said. “I anticipate that in the future, we’ll need even more of them.”

The biggest change in what’s expected of substation techs, Foxen said, is setting up technology such as a tablet or laptop to  monitor substation performance in real time.

“Utilities want to be able to log in and see things like fault currents, voltage fluctuations, in order to make sure things are operating efficiently and safely, also to determine if maintenance is needed,” Foxen said.

Substation training also prepares apprentices to: 

  • Construct protective grounding grids for electrical systems, controls, cabinets, transformers, control houses, fences and steel structures
  • Install foundations and bases for control cabinets, transformer control houses and steel structures
  • Dig and trench, as well as carry out rebar construction, utility location and conduit installations
  • Build protective parameters
  • Read and plan work from blueprints, diagrams and more
  • Pull cable, perform coding, wire and terminate cables used for electrical systems and control monitoring and communication within the substation and outside sources
  • Construct steel structures and steel control houses
  • Install, connect and service transformers and circuit breakers
  • Install wire and pipe for distribution connections between transmission lines, distribution lines and transformers
  • Weld conduit used as bus for circuit connections
  • Assemble switching gear for transmission and distribution of high-voltage

American Line Builders Joint Apprenticeship and Training also offers substation technician training and serves Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Header image: This New Mexico switchyard was constructed by Dacon Corp. substation apprentices and technicians. Photo by Dacon Corp.

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].

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