A close-up of a Colorado co-op lineman’s pole-climbing boots was on the cover of RE Magazine in October 2004—16 inches of leather leg armor with steel toes. They were there to illustrate a looming labor shortage.
The average age of a lineworker back then was 48.
“That means there’s a large percentage in their upper 50s approaching retirement age,” an official at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) said. “Within three to five years, there will be a mass exodus.”
In 2004, lineworkers were the single largest employee category at co-ops—a total of about 20,000 men and a handful of women—36 percent of the workforce. Some 15,000 of them were IBEW members.
That fall, the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas (statewide) launched a 12-month lineworker training program at Arkansas State University’s Newport campus. Each of the state’s 17 distribution systems committed to one full-tuition scholarship of $3,000 each year for five years.
“After the students successfully complete nine months of classroom training, they work a three-month internship. … Then they may be hired by a co-op,” Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Ozarks Electric Cooperative in Fayetteville, said.
He saw the new program as a way to create a labor pool to keep the co-op’s 80 lineworker slots filled. Ozarks Electric had also initiated a program at local high schools to encourage juniors to consider linework as a career.
In Lexington, Nebraska, Dawson Public Power District kept lineworkers’ shoes filled by talking to high school guidance counselors and creating a “shadow-a-lineworker” program. They also offered one or two $1,000 scholarships each year toward a two-year degree in line tech from a community college in Norfolk, Nebraska. Recipients could get additional financial assistance by working for the distribution system during the summer and on spring break.
In Illinois, where lineworkers made up 40 to 50 percent of the co-op workforce in 2004, the statewide had transformed its 45-year-old “hotline” schools into a two-year degree program at local community colleges. Started in 2001, it was open to anyone, co-op focused or not.
A survey conducted by the statewide in 2000 indicated that some 200 lineworkers would retire by 2005–16 percent of Illinois’s 1,200 co-op employees.
“That’s a lot of experience to replace,” said John Freitag, a vice president at the statewide at the time.
And it’s experience that needs time to develop.
“It takes five years to train lineworkers to journeyman level, which is a minimal level of competency to work on their own,” Jim Hunter of IBEW said. “To get to a senior or lead level, you’re talking about someone with 10 years of training and experience.”
NRECA worked with IBEW, the Edison Electric Institute and the American Public Power Association to develop an electric power technology program at Bismarck State College in Bismarck, North Dakota, for utility employees unable to attend school full-time. All 15 courses were offered online and led to an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree.
Basic courses included fundamentals of electricity, computer skills and electrical system components. Specialty courses covered line construction, generation, metering, substations, distribution system design and system operation.
John Weisdorfer, a lineman at New Mexico’s Springer Electric Cooperative, began working on his AAS degree in 2002 and planned to graduate by the spring of 2006. He started at the co-op in 1996.
He said he usually studied at night after work, although he sometimes did a little before driving to work.
“It’s hard to study part-time while you’re working full-time,” he said. “I’m married and have two daughters, ages six months and four years. I’m also interested in raising breaking horses. But it comes down to setting priorities of what you want out of life. Taking the classes is something I feel I need to do.”