The images are a media staple in a severe weather event: along with the meteorologists, we see lines of utility bucket trucks getting into position to pick up the pieces and restring the wires. Today, though, the outdoor line industry faces a staffing challenge of near-epic proportions, and it’s beginning to raise a serious question: What if there simply aren’t enough lineworkers to get those trucks in place? Access to training for new lineworkers is certainly a critical need. A NECA-supported facility under construction in Washington will soon help address the labor shortfall in the region by offering training opportunities for aspiring apprentices and those seeking to upgrade their existing skills.
Where we are now
The shortage in lineworkers isn’t new, but it is getting worse. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in its Quadrennial Energy Review, anticipated the nation would need 105,000 new workers in the smart grid and electric utility industry by 2030. At that point, DOE analysts anticipated only 25,000 existing industry participants would be interested in filling those jobs, leaving a significant gap between who is available and the actual need.
“The remaining 80,000 employees in this supply-demand mismatch will need to be filled through recruiting and training,” according to the report. “However, the industry is not expected to meet the forecasted need with its current recruitment and training rates.”
The pandemic hasn’t helped matters—that “great resignation” we’ve been hearing so much about has hit line work, too. Demographics also are feeding this trend, as a significant percentage of these professionals are now hitting their late 50s and eyeing retirement. According to the Center for Energy Workforce Development’s 2021 “Gaps in the Energy Workforce 2021 Pipeline” survey, 11% of lineworkers are older than 53.
Another recent trend—job-hopping—is also starting to be a problem for smaller, lower-wage co-op and municipal utilities. Like the nurses who switched from full-time to contract work at the height of COVID-19, lineworkers at these companies are finding much higher wages by switching to working for contracting firms or larger, investor-owned utilities. This, in turn, is forcing some of those utilities to turn to contractors for their line work.
These outside line labor shortfalls are occurring just as work could be picking up in a very big way, as transmission operators seek to boost their systems to add new capacity for remote renewable resources. For example, President Biden’s infrastructure package passed last year includes more than $20 billion in transmission-construction incentives. And regional transmission organizations are launching their own ambitious plans. In July, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which serves 14 Midwestern states, announced a plan to add 18 new high-voltage transmission lines to support up to 53 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2028.
Building a solution
In the Pacific Northwest, a long-term collaboration between the local NECA chapter and four union locals is in the middle of constructing its second training facility for apprentices, aspiring apprentices and journeymen seeking to refresh their skills. The center, located in Battle Ground, Wash., is being developed by the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (NW Line JATC). This group was founded in 1953 as a combined effort of IBEW locals 77, 125, 483 and 659, along with contractor members of NECA’s Northwest Line Constructors (NW Line) chapter. The Battle Ground campus will add to the training capabilities NW Line JATC has offered at its facility on the grounds of Camp Rilea, a military training complex on the Oregon coast, for decades.
According to Tracy Harness, NW Line Constructors chapter manager, the new center will provide additional options for prospective applicants (or “pre-apprentices”), as well as current apprentices from the NW Line’s Construction and Tree programs and apprentices from utilities in the region.
“We needed to have a more centralized location—[at] our current training center on the coast, while it’s a great facility, it can be hard to get additional instructors,” she said. “Being in a more centralized area of Washington, we will be able to maintain instructors. We also needed a more modernized facility to accommodate more training.”
The opening of the Washington campus, scheduled for early 2023, will be the latest data point in a long history for the NW Line JATC’s work to support the electrical industry. The Camp Rilea campus opened in 1974, when the JATC formed an agreement with the military to use a portion of the base, including some barracks for housing. A formal lease was signed in 1995 for 10 acres, on which the JATC built a 15,000-square-foot facility with classrooms and indoor and outdoor training yards. This gave instructors the necessary space to educate students on a full range of activities they could face in the field, including distribution, hot-stick and rubber glove methods, transformer connections and rescue operations.
In 2005, NW Line JATC extended its Camp Rilea training capabilities to include entry-level workers with the opening of its Vocational Outside Lineworker Training Academy (VOLTA). It was the first time IBEW/NECA training had ever been offered to those who hadn’t yet become a part of the apprenticeship program. This opened the doors to applicants who are at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma or GED and a valid U.S. driver’s license and can physically perform the work.
Completing the 10-week course, which also includes classroom instruction, can give graduates a leg up when applying for entry-level outside electrical positions.
Efforts to get the new JATC facility up and running began in 2015, when the NW Line JATC Trust purchased the Battle Ground property and began working on plans for it. With the rising cost of construction, the trustees voted to raise the funds for construction by increasing the contribution from participating contractors, including NECA’s NW Line members and the Power Line Clearance contractors. Those efforts are now paying off as the new campus’ two structures take shape.
“The idea was to take the training facility in Oregon and offer an improved facility locally, which also includes a home for our administrative offices” said Claudia Repman, NW Line JATC manager of administrative operations.
The first building on the new campus will include three classrooms, office space, a commercial kitchen and the power line clearance and tree-trimming training room. This first-of-its-kind structure will feature 20-foot ceilings and simulated tree poles for instruction.
The second building will focus on electrical construction work, with 45-foot ceilings and 25 power poles. That area will include energized equipment to simulate the high-voltage work apprentices will be doing in the field. Hot-sticking, rescue and other techniques will be taught here, too.
Future expansion has been built into the plans, said Terry Lowen, the JATC’s director. “We chose to go with a metal building that’s easy to add on to, if need be.”
In total, the apprenticeship program—including JATC training and work in the field—is two years and 4,000 hours for tree work and about three and a half years and 7,000 hours for line work. Prospective apprentices are selected on a ranked basis that considers previous electrical training such as line school and work experience, including any time spent in the outside electrical industry.
“The rank is constantly moving—those with more experience are typically rated and ranked higher,” Lowen said. “We interview every two months, and there’s always some movement on the rank list. And applicants can re-interview after they’ve gotten more experience.”
Repman said the JATC’s apprenticeship and VOLTA programs are fairly well-known in the region, but the group still actively works to build awareness about the opportunities a career in outside line work can offer.
“We try to target the nontraditional path, so we look at all programs that serve those communities,” she said, which could include efforts to get more women and people of color into the field. They also seek to reach out to high school students who might be looking for an alternative to a traditional four-year college after graduation.
“Now there’s more of an interest to work with school counselors to increase their knowledge about apprenticeship, in general,” she said.
With the new facility, the JATC will have the capacity to train up to 1,000 students per year, across line, tree, utility partners and VOLTA programs. These openings can be limited, as contractors can only take on as many apprentices as they have journeyman lineworkers to train them, Lowen said, based on state and federal apprenticeship standards. So hopeful apprentices must wait for those currently going through the process to finish up before they can become enrolled (or “indentured”) themselves.
Part of the backup in bringing on new apprentices is the supply-chain issues of the last two years, which slowed work in the region.
“Typically, outside construction is up and down,” he said, though she expects demand to grow soon. “With the abundance of work on the horizon, we will need many new apprentices to fill the gap in linemen retiring.”