As one of seven NECA chapters focused on outside electrical construction, American Line Builders (ALB) represents 41 electrical contractors in the District of Columbia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. This busy chapter clocked nearly 18.5 million man-hours in 2019.
“We have been the second-largest chapter in all of NECA in terms of man-hours worked for the last several years—only behind New York City,” said Kevin Moran, ALB assistant manager.
For the last eight years, replacement of aging infrastructure has driven the chapter’s frenetic pace, Moran said. That includes installation of distribution utility poles, transmission lines, substations and traffic signals, as well as upgrading networks to accommodate increased demands for power related to new construction and advances in technology. The frequency and intensity of weather-related catastrophes also has fueled labor demand.
“Utility companies frequently call upon contractors through mutual assistance agreements with other regions in the form of trained lineman to help restore power and repair downed power lines,” Moran said.
“Attrition through retirement also pushes a need for new linemen,” said Kevin Castle, director of American Line Builder’s Apprenticeship and Training (ALBAT) Center in Medway, Ohio.
For the apprenticeships in the eight states and the District of Columbia, ALBAT provides training in cable splicing, distribution, substation, traffic signal, transmission and underground residential distribution.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the electrical industry will add 62,000 jobs by 2029. Similar predictions motivate ALBAT to keep the training pipeline flowing and to convince a diverse group of young people that college isn’t the only route to a lucrative career.
“The average lineman can earn a six-figure income,” Castle said. “They also get to earn and work while being trained. They’re not saddled with college debt and concerns about getting a job.”
To feed the labor pipeline, ALBAT targets employment events and high school job fairs. It also checks in with unemployment offices and interfaces with programs supportive of minorities, Castle said.
Retaining apprentices throughout the rigorous training is key.
“About 30% decide pole work is not their cup of tea,” Castle said. “But there are other outside construction opportunities with traffic signal work, cable splicing and substation work.”
Over the last decade, the ALBAT campus expanded significantly with new training buildings, a 112-bed dormitory and pole yard. Classrooms offer high-tech simulations and online access to off-site work demonstrations and enable students to view and review hands-on lessons. ALBAT instructors also can present lessons to other IBEW training centers in the area through online connections.
More recently, ALBAT upgraded its 60-pole indoor climbing facility to include a mock substation, locker room and hands-on learning stations, Castle said.
Even during the pandemic, ALBAT’s apprentice training and its continuing education of lineworkers has continued at a good pace.
“In March 2020, the training center was operating full-tilt with about 100 students,” Castle said. “A representative from the Clark County Health Department paid us a visit. He was following up on neighbors worried about cars in our lot with plates from eight other states.”
Castle said he and other ALBAT personnel “took time to develop a solid relationship with the health department and carefully follow guidelines.”
Adjustments included requiring mandatory masks and temperature scans, installing hand-sanitizing stations, maintaining social distancing, serving all meals on-site instead of only two a day and reducing the number of students in a room.
After a three-month shutdown, ALBAT reopened with one student per dorm room instead of the usual four bunking together. Accounting for storage rooms, the center could accommodate just 26 students instead of 112.
In late fall 2020, as restrictions imposed by the state of Ohio and the local health department changed, ALBAT was able to double the number of on-site enrollees to 52.
To increase output, the center condensed training sessions from three weeks with weekends off to two solid weeks. To keep apprentices fresh, the center scheduled the less-rigorous lessons such as CPR training and OSHA safety training on weekends.
“We went from regular training to more of a boot camp, and it worked,” Castle said. “Our numbers dipped at the beginning of the pandemic. By September-ish, we were off by about 100 in terms of students. By December 2020, we were that much ahead.”