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In Their Own Words: Line apprentices discuss their experiences, training and motivation for entering the trade

By Susan Bloom | Feb 15, 2024
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Data shows that there are over 150,000 apprentices currently enrolled in electrical apprenticeship programs nationwide.

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Data shows that there are over 150,000 apprentices currently enrolled in electrical apprenticeship programs nationwide. The electrical contracting field needs all the trained specialists it can get, with construction activity on the rise and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that there will be roughly 73,500 job openings for electricians each year from now through 2032—a growth rate faster than the national average.

The good news is that a new generation of talent eager to learn the trade is helping to fill the ranks and tackle these essential jobs with skill and excitement.

Below, three electrical apprentices at different stages of their seven-step training discuss their experience, favorite (and least favorite) parts of training and hopes and career aspirations once they graduate.

Beck Amo

Age: 23
Location: Michigan
Apprenticeship level: 7th step line apprentice with IBEW Local 17, set to graduate in early 2024

“My grandfather was a lineman with DTE Energy in Detroit years ago and I always enjoyed his stories. He was a rugged guy and had a lot of camaraderie with his co-­workers,” Amo said. 

“I knew in high school that I’d go after a career as a lineman, but becoming a lineman isn’t as simple as just showing up. Our local union also has tree trimmers, so I started out as a tree trimmer after high school in 2018 because I felt it would help me get my foot in the door and have a better chance of joining the lineman apprentice program, which I started in October 2020.”

“I was on the wrestling team in high school, and we were a pretty tight group that ran together,” Amo said of his interest in the field. “We all had each other’s backs, and I wanted a career where I could continue that kind of lifestyle.

“Money was important to me, too. My grandfather’s friends used to talk about how much they made and that the work was always going to be there, so it seemed like a secure career,” he said.

During the final weeks of training, “I had more responsibility than earlier on and was helping to teach newer apprentices,” he said. “As a contractor for DTE, I tried to share input and offer ideas and ways of doing things with our journeymen and foremen, not just have them give me tasks to do. Right now, we do a lot of storm work and power restoration and are rebuilding Detroit—new poles, wire, everything. All of us take a lot of pride in it because the previous equipment and infrastructure was a century old, so we’re doing things that have never been done.”

As for the apprentice program, “I was a nervous wreck at first and didn’t want to make a mistake, but mistakes are inevitable, and that’s how you learn,” Amo said. “It gets better the more you know.”

“My favorite part of the training was getting the opportunity to go out of state to do storm work. Last winter, for instance, we worked in Massachusetts and New Hampshire during a nor’easter, and I like seeing how linework is built in different places,” he said. “The line system in Detroit is more complicated than in some other regions, so I feel confident when I go to other locations because the work is often easier.

“My least favorite type of work is being on the ground, assisting guys in the air by getting things ready to install or being an observer,” he said. “I know it’s important to be another set of eyes, but I like the action and I get restless. During the first part of my apprenticeship, I worked on big transmission towers that were over 100 feet in the air. I love challenging situations.”

Looking ahead, “I hope to keep learning, teaching other people coming up and leaving my mark on the industry. If you’re looking to get into the field, this job will change your life.”

“Here in Detroit, we’re working nonstop and are a tight-knit group; the guys you work with become your family and I’ve made some of my best friendships here. The pace of storm restoration work can spin your head at first until you figure it out, but I’d recommend this program and career to anyone who’s interested. You can do it if you put your mind to it,” Amo said.

Sabrina Burns

Age: 22
Location: Illinois
Apprenticeship level: 1st step substation technician apprentice with IBEW Local 2/Missouri Valley JATC

“My father was in the military and we moved around a lot while I was growing up. We moved to Illinois when I was 12 and I still live there,” said Burns, who is athletic and outdoorsy and enjoys snowboarding and softball. 

“Though I got an associate degree in criminal justice from Lewis & Clark College in Illinois, my major wasn’t up my alley. I wanted to be challenged, explore new things and get my hands dirty.” 

After getting her CDL and driving a truck for a while, “one of my father’s friends who’s a lineman mentioned that career to me and it sounded interesting,” she said. “I applied and started the apprenticeship program at Missouri Valley JATC in late August 2023.”

Burns said the program involves some book work, but is mostly hands-on.

 “We take online courses and they send us to work at different contracting companies. Then, every six months, we go to Iowa to take finals to measure our understanding of the material,” she shared. “I worked for a contracting firm four hours away in Kansas City, Kan., for my first six weeks, and the company I’m with now, Three Phase Line Construction [headquartered in Rochester, N.H.] in St. Louis, has been teaching me how to set steel, terminate wires and work with wire breakers. It’s been a challenge, but I absolutely love it.” 

“It’s new to me, but it’s rewarding because I’ve never seen myself get this far. It makes me feel great about myself and what I’m able to do,” Burns said.

As the only woman out of 10 apprentices in her class, “being in the program was kind of intimidating at first, but all of my jobs have always involved working with men, so I’m used to it; everyone in the program treats me with respect and no one treats me differently,” she said. 

While aspects of the job are physically challenging—“I have to use my body weight to pull wire and ask for help when it comes to carrying something really heavy like a generator,” she said—Burns sees it as motivation for herself and other women. “Just because all men are working there doesn’t mean that a woman can’t do it. I’d love to see more women, especially more women of color, in these types of jobs because we’re underrepresented. I hope to help inspire other women to reach for their goals and go for it.”

Among her favorite parts of the program, “I’ve absolutely loved everything I’ve been doing and every day is a new challenge.” 

“My least favorite part has been working on the ground grid—a configuration which disperses energy like lightning back into the earth so that it doesn’t injure people or cause property damage—because it involves carrying a huge crimp, which is super heavy, especially while you’re working in a tiny trench. It’s awkward and you need a third hand!

“Looking ahead, I want to get my journeyman’s ticket and chase the dream,” Burns said. “I’d recommend this opportunity to others, especially anyone who loves a new challenge every day and the chance to meet new people and get your hands dirty. 

“There’s definitely a maturity level involved—this program isn’t easy and you have to be responsible—but if you’re motivated and willing to study and do the work, you can do very well,” she said. “Since becoming an apprentice, I’ve never felt more confident in myself and I look forward to my future because I see so much potential to evolve and grow.”

Alex Elkassamani

Age: 35
Location: Missouri
Apprenticeship level: 7th step line apprentice with IBEW Local 53/Missouri Valley JATC

“I grew up in Ozark, Mo., and spent 10 years in the army from 2006–2016, during which time I did three deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and oversaw 46 guys in my platoon,” Elkassamani said. 

After an injury prevented him from  re-enlisting, “I went into project management, but sitting in an office wasn’t an ideal fit for me. My father had worked on the power lines and moved all the way up to the level of senior executive vice president, so joining the trade seemed like a great opportunity. Since I used to split firewood and build barns growing up, working with my hands was second nature to me.”

Acknowledging that he’s a good decade older than most of the others in his class of 12, he said, “There’s a great ‘if you don’t know, just ask’ environment in the program, and the apprentices and linemen work together as a team and are like family.” 

“I left a 10-year brotherhood in the army, but I have a whole new one already,” said Elkassamani, who started his apprenticeship in 2020 and will complete the program in spring 2024. 

“Our classroom time covers ‘Why we do it this way’ and the fieldwork explains ‘How we do it,’” he said. 

“In the beginning, classes covered basic circuitry rules, proper clearances and safety procedures, and how to watch your own and others’ backs, but now our crew members are changing out old poles with new ones with the proper voltage. The first time you do it can be a little overwhelming, but you have to have respect for your enemy—in this case, a conductor that’s carrying 12,470V—and be responsible for communicating and checking your equipment and PPE. 

“My crew and linemen have afforded me opportunities to learn by putting me in a lot of different scenarios. If they know I haven’t seen or done something, they teach me. We’re always expanding on our skills and striving to work smarter, safer and master the basics,” he said.

Among his favorite tasks, “I love cleaning up and setting new poles, framing them in the air, transferring the conductors and hooking everything up—it’s a whole project,” he said. “I’d say that working on streetlights is my least favorite thing to do, just because they’re so basic. I like to be challenged and I love the more in-depth jobs that require more knowledge and attention to detail.”

Looking ahead, “I want to be a journeyman lineman learning as much about the trade as I can in the next 3–5 years. Then I’d love to become a foreman running a crew, taking care of my guys and teaching others. I trained soldiers and led them into war, and now I want to train apprentices in the trade.”

“This trade is what you make it—you can work seven days or four days a week, depending on what you’re looking for,” Elkassamani said. “I have a 16-year-old son and I tell him that, in this field, you can own your own home and truck by the time you’re 25. Much of the time, I’m home every night and get to live a happy life, enjoy my family and attend my kid’s school functions because this job generally has normal hours … though at any chance of a storm, pole down or call-in, I can at work within the hour.”

“This program is challenging and not everybody makes it,” he said, “but every day is different and you’ll come out with no debt. The training offers a lot of opportunities and the sky’s the limit.”

 

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About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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