When Tyler Perkins was a high school senior in Tarboro, North Carolina, he went on a field trip that changed his life. 

Perkins signed up with about 20 of his classmates to attend a daylong line technician camp at nearby Edgecombe-Martin County Electric Membership Corp. The 11,500-member co-op has been hosting the camp since 2019 as a way to recruit new lineworkers by introducing students to a career they might otherwise never hear about. 

For Perkins, it led him to the job he loves. 

“I always knew that I wanted to work outside and do something with my hands,” Perkins says. “Then I went to the camp and got to actually be in the bucket truck. From that day forward, I had my mind made up that I was going to be a lineman. I even went home and told my parents.” 

More than four years later, Perkins is a second-class lineworker who gets to operate the bucket he was so thrilled to ride in at camp. After the camp ended, he kept in touch with the co-op and earned his line technician degree from one of the local community colleges. The co-op hired him as soon as he graduated from the 16-week program. 

“I enjoy helping people,” says Perkins, who is now 23. “When the storms come and I can help get people’s lights back on, and the people are so appreciative, it really hits home with me. I love it when we’re working and people stop by and say, ‘Thank you for what you do. You’re my heroes.’” 

Perkins is one of four line technicians that Edgecombe-Martin has recruited from among its campers.

CEO Winston Howell says the idea for the camp came from the co-op’s staff during a discussion several years ago about ways to recruit people for the operations side of the business. With about 10% of the co-op’s line-workers eligible for retirement in the next five years, training younger workers is crucial, he says. 

“With the attrition we’re seeing—and co-ops across the country are seeing—it was an area we needed to address,” Howell says. “I think for so long the nation as a whole has concentrated on the message that you’ve got to have a four-year college degree to be successful. But being a line technician is a job that pays well and is in high demand. To meet our own future demand, we really need to get ahead of the curve.” 

Edgecombe-Martin hosts free daylong camps for a week each spring, working with eight to 10 local high schools that provide transportation and teachers to chaperone the events. The camps are held in a safe, deenergized field that the co-op uses to train its apprentice lineworkers. Students from ninth to 12th grade are welcome. 

In one of the more dramatic sessions, lineworkers use a mannequin to demonstrate how to rescue a colleague on a power pole. They also operate drones to show the students how the co-op checks the condition of its power lines and other equipment. 

Participants in the five-hour camps learn how to use hand tools and put on safety equipment. Students who answer questions about co-ops and electricity correctly get free caps and other goodies. 

“I think the hands-on sessions are the key in getting the students engaged,” says Monica Speight, the co-op’s communications manager, who organizes the camps with Lisa Tolson, vice president of human resources. 

The cost of the annual event is about $2,000, not including labor costs for the operations employees who teach the sessions, says Tolson. Free meals are served to all the participants. 

The camp has become more popular each year, attracting about 200 students in 2023. Representatives from two local community colleges attend the camp to let interested students know about their lineworker training programs. 

“We’ve gotten great feedback,” Tolson says. “Students told us that they go back to school and make sure that their friends sign up for the next year’s camp.” 

The students are always impressed by how much line technicians get paid, Speight says. 

The pay for a lineworker ranges from $22 an hour to $48 an hour, based on experience and training levels, Howell says. Line technicians who work their way up to leadership roles can earn $56 an hour.

Perkins, who has talked to students at the camps, says he tells them “it’s not all about the pay.” 

“You’re outside when it’s 100 degrees in the summer and zero degrees in the winter,” he says. “It could be 2 o’clock in the morning, and you’re out there working to restore power. It’s not for everybody. You’ve got to be passionate about it.”