When GreyStone Power Corp.'s Jerry Tucker retired late last year after 50 years on the job, he asked for one last thing before hanging up his boots and spurs for good.
"I didn't want anything monetary," said Tucker, 67. Instead, he wanted to honor his late wife, Ellen, for her sacrifice spent at home alone raising their two daughters while he was out on restoration calls, sometimes for days at a time.
"She made a good home for me and our daughters. She was my strength," Tucker said of his late wife of 48 years, who died shortly before his retirement. "I also wanted to honor the co-op that was so kind to me."
The Douglasville, Georgia, co-op made good on that request for "something with her name on it" with a $50,000 donation in the couple's name to a career academy that will train generations of lineworkers to come. This fall, the Jerry Lamar Tucker and Ellen Barrett Tucker Energy Pathway Lab will open, as part of the larger Paulding College and Career Academy. The energy lab will be one of four career programs at the academy.
"I can help people who want to be in the same business that I was in," said Tucker, who was hired at GreyStone Power in 1968 as a mapping assistant and retired last August as supervisor of line construction and maintenance.
High schoolers completing the Energy Pathway Lab's requirements will earn a diploma and credentials applicable toward college credit or a dual degree program at nearby Chattahoochee Technical College, which is developing a more in-depth feeder program for other related jobs. too.
"The certificate will give graduates a leg up on other candidates as they apply for positions at co-ops or investor-owned utilities because they'll have the foundation of the Energy Pathway program while they were in high school," said Rita Harris, the co-op's department manager for human resources and governing chair of the career academy.
GreyStone Power is not immune from the industrywide trend of retiring lineworkers. Several years ago, said Harris, the co-op realized that up to 35 percent of operations workers were eligible for retirement between 2014 and 2019.
"Whether it's manager, supervisor or foreman, those vacancies do trickle down to lineman after lineman after lineman," said Harris. "We find it very difficult to fill linemen positions externally, and the apprenticeship program…it takes six years for them to be there. In that six years, we might lose 20 to 30 percent. It's too critical for us to just sit back and wait for people to come to us."
Compounding the labor shortage is Paulding County's "brain drain." Nearly 90 percent of Paulding County residents commute out of the county to work, while 60 percent of those employed in Paulding do not reside there, according to county data.
Talks on early career training options in Paulding County began about five years ago between the co-op and officials from the school district and other technical colleges, said Harris. Most of the funding comes from a $3.15 million grant from the Technical College System of Georgia to develop the four disciplines: energy, patient care tech, advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity. The co-op's donation will go toward equipment in the Energy Pathway lab.
The Jerry Lamar Tucker and Ellen Barrett Tucker Energy Pathway Lab is a fitting ending for Tucker's five-decade career at GreyStone Power. The co-op even held the Vietnam veteran's job when he lost part of his foot during the war and had to relearn how to climb.
"I never missed a storm," he said. "It's very special to me that GreyStone decided to honor myself and my wife in this way."