More than a thousand linemen from around the world were competing for top honors at the International Lineman’s Rodeo & Expo in Bonner Springs, Kansas, in mid-October. But only a select few had curious strips of tape on their work pants.

“We wear tape on our legs, but you see the tape is taped backwards,” says lineman David Carlton, a 17-year veteran of Jackson Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), pointing to the bottom of a pair of heavy-duty jeans. “When we put the hook on there, it sticks to it, whereas with a lot of other guys, they just put the hook on and it can be a little loose. There’s lots of little tricks we incorporate to make ourselves faster.”

Lineman’s rodeos have increased in popularity in recent years; you can find one a half-day’s drive from just about any point in the United States. In that evolution, they’ve become more than an opportunity to show off skills in front of a crowd or hang with a few buddies from other companies. They represent a new round of continuing education for linemen to draw on when they return home.

“The payoff is just amazing,” says James Vasquez, technical training manager at Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC) in Johnson City, Texas. Vasquez should know; he started his career as a Class C lineman, and his mother, Rosa, was the first woman inducted into the International Lineman’s Museum Hall of Fame.

“They have to master their skills, their trade, they have to study, and it’s just an all-around win-win for everybody,” he says. “They have to learn the safety aspect. There’s no downside. The idea is to make the new generation better than the older generation. And the way to do that is to continue to test their skills.”

Watch | 2017 International Lineman’s Rodeo

The Center for Energy Workforce Development, which is backed by NRECA, trade associations, and utilities, estimates as much as 40 percent of the lineman population could retire by 2024. To Bobby Christmas, senior executive manager at Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative (GVEC) in Gonzales, Texas, rodeos are a “fantastic” way of filling that skill gap.

“The apprentices that are participating in the rodeo tend to learn more, faster, than those that are not participating,” Christmas says. “It forces them to learn from the lineman’s book, but also to ask questions about how things work from the linemen that have been in the rodeo. Then they start talking to other utilities, the apprentices there, and learn new things from them.”

Christmas is about as close as you’ll find to being “Mr. Rodeo” in the Lone Star State. He has attended the annual international rodeo on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri, 19 times. He chairs the board of directors of the Texas Lineman’s Rodeo Association and helped found the event in 1995. It has grown from a dozen journeyman teams and a dozen apprentices to 40 to 50 teams and 130 apprentices from electric co-ops, municipal systems, and investor-owned utilities.

So what really brings a smile to his face is when GVEC linemen take their rodeo experiences into the workplace.

“I see our teams out in the field when I go out and do inspections,” Christmas says. “They’ll come down out of the bucket and one of them will say, ‘Well, you lost four points because you dropped a tool.’ Or when they’re climbing, if they cut out, they’ll say, ‘You cost yourself points.’ It’s almost like they are using their day-to-day activities as though they were competing in a rodeo. It’s pretty impressive to watch it, and it really gets them to focus on the safety side.”

Pride, Skill, Competition

Count Mark Stallons, CEO of Owen Electric Cooperative in Owenton, Kentucky, as one who believes that the rodeo investment more than pays for itself.

As a show of support from management and the co-op board, Owen Electric budgets about $20,000 a year for lineman’s rodeos. Stallons cheers on his teams as often as possible—in 2017, he flew to Kansas City straight from the NRECA Regions 2 & 3 meeting in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Basically, it helps build a team, it helps build morale, it helps build safety skills,” says Stallons, whose father and uncle were electric utility linemen. “I think it also says for the co-op, we aspire for our linemen to be the best they can be.”

Owen Electric fielded a pair of three-person journeyman teams in the 2017 international competition, held less than a month after the annual Kentucky Lineman’s Rodeo. The rule is not hard and fast, but Stallons says his co-op generally takes teams that do well at the state event to Kansas. At either event, there’s little room for error. At the statewide rodeo, an Owen Electric team was one foot from dismounting the pole when a wrench fell, hit the ground, cost the crew a deduction penalty, and became the difference in winning a medal and sitting in the audience.

“We want linemen who work safely. We want linemen who are skilled. And we want linemen who take pride. This rodeo does all three of those things: pride, skill, and competition among the co-ops, as well as we get to benchmark ourselves against the best,” Stallons says. “And quite honestly, we have a good time coming out here.”

Jimmy Wilmoth, a journeyman lineman with Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) in Lovingston, drove 16 hours with his crewmates to Kansas. Asked about any hijinks that occurred on the long haul, he jokes, “I can tell you … but you probably don’t want to know.”

Then he turns serious. “It prepares us for work at home. It lets us see stuff you wouldn’t see in a normal day. It helps your hand work. It makes your guys a little more tightly knit. You get out of it what you put in it.”

Wilmoth was one of eight CVEC workers at the international rodeo, dubbed the “Super Bowl of Linemen.” Four team members helped out with coaching and event judging during the one-day competition. The competitors—apprentice Steven Matney and a journeyman team of Brandon Hudson, D.J. Noble, and Brute Gardner—tackled an array of challenges. From the sidelines, other linemen from co-ops, investor-owned utilities, and municipal systems studied their every move like quarterbacks gauging defenses.

“We watch, and we take notes. We do spend a lot of time beforehand prepping and trying to find the best methods,” says Carlton of Jackson EMC. “Maybe the materials are different, but we can look it up on the internet, look at a piece of equipment and how to use it. Research is key. You’ve got a job to do; you lay it out and do it the best way possible.”

‘Here to Win’

One trek around the grounds of the international rodeo, and it’s clear that electric cooperatives take this business seriously. Co-op utility trucks dot the parking lot, and several co-ops have special trailers the size of tour buses to haul equipment and necessities. Because the rodeo is an all-volunteer effort, it asks participating utilities to bring along a potential judge or two for each entrant. That’s how some co-op entourages number 40 to 50 people, including family members.

“We’re here to win,” says Tim Burns, a line foreman with Jackson EMC, a coach and part of the co-op’s support team in 2017. “If we’re just here to show the flag, then I’m staying home.”

Burns has been at Jackson EMC for 36 years and was a member of the first team that the co-op sent to the international rodeo in 1997. His crew took first place, and the Jefferson, Georgia-based co-op has been a fixture since, slowing its participation only during the Great Recession. In 2017, its journeyman team of Wayne Connell, Jeff Sutton, and Jeremy Adams placed eighth out of 238 teams from all utilities and third among 38 co-op teams.

Based on his two decades of rodeo experience, Burns says there’s a common trait among linemen who compete in the rodeo. They tend to wind up being the real go-getters at Jackson EMC.

“We feel like it’s the best training these guys can get,” he says. “When we have our storms, poles that are out in the wet areas, these guys are the first ones at it. ‘Hey, I’ll go out there and get it.’ These ‘rodeo-ers’— they’re on it.”

Part of that desire to win requires extra hours of training in the months leading up to state, regional, or international rodeos. Many co-ops have a couple of utility poles mounted in their yards for just such a purpose, while some have even more elaborate setups. Eric Bitzko, technical services supervisor at Pedernales, says that kind of practice makes perfect.

“Every guy out here has put in more time to practice than some guys will put in all year on overtime,” says Bitzko, part of PEC’s support team at the international rodeo. “The last thing you want to do is come out here and embarrass yourself and the company that you’re representing. So a lot of these guys, they practice on nights or weekends, whether it’s studying or climbing.”

“There’s always new things to learn,” adds Greg John of Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, whose team won the 2017 journeyman division in Texas and fared well in Kansas. “You’ve got to be a little crazy to climb a pole, and you’ve got to want to win.”

The payoff?

A 4-foot-high trophy.

The 2017 Cobb Electric Membership Corporation team of Scotty Lyons, Jeremy Norment, and Josh Poston finished first in the journeyman division, the Marietta, Georgia-based co-op’s second “Best of the Best” in three years.

In all, 2017 brought 1,207 competitors to Kansas, an impressive showing considering many linemen were coming off restoration assignments following hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“The odds were stacked up against us when two hurricanes hit,” says Dale Warman, co-chairman of the rodeo board of directors. “I think that it really made the event even more meaningful and rewarding for the competitors, to come have a good time with co-workers and their families after being gone working storms for several weeks.”

Safety First

Clint Card says there’s a common misconception about lineman’s rodeos: that everyone is out to beat the clock.

Not so, says Card, manager of Chase City district operations at Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative in Chase City, Virginia. The true name of the game is safety. As a judge at regional and international rodeos, he’s looking for faults before he worries about the stopwatch. Case in point: He worked the apprentice pole climb in Bonner Springs, crooking his neck up and down to watch 313 competitors. The second-fastest time of the day was registered by an investor-owned utility contestant at a sizzling 22 seconds. But he scored a two-point deduction for a slight bobble and placed 160th instead of second.

“Time can be an issue as a tiebreaker,” Card says. “But the rodeo is about safety first, doing it right, and watching other people do it right.”

That’s particularly important because many of the simulated events would be extremely dangerous on energized lines. While events differ from rodeo to rodeo, the 2017 menu in Kansas included repairing a phase conductor around a damaged wire as well as heaving a gathered rope 30 feet in the air, threading it through lines of wire 18 inches apart, then mounting a utility pole to change out pin-top insulators.

“A lot of guys can climb real fast, but you have to learn to be able to work,” says Rick Aulgur, area operations supervisor at Branson, Missouri-based White River Valley Electric Co-op, which fielded one team at the international rodeo. “Get the technique first, then speed will follow naturally.”

Strong Growth

What does the future hold? Probably more rodeos, more competition, and more team building. In 2017, the Georgia Lineman’s Rodeo attracted 86 apprentices who compete individually and 33 journeyman teams. The Virginia-based Gaff-n-Go Lineman’s Rodeo grows each year; it was up to 150 linemen in 2017. Rodeos in the Tennessee Valley, Kentucky, Nebraska, Montana, California, New England, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest, among others, all report strong growth.

But as the job of a lineman changes, organizers say rodeos will have to adjust. In Texas, for example, Christmas foresees apprentices taking their written tests online, perhaps before the rodeo. Events will have to be restructured as well. Today’s linemen must be computer-savvy and routinely work with laptops and a smart grid. So future competitions might involve troubleshooting electronic devices, he says.

“Every day, you can learn new practices and learn new ways to do things, and you can learn things from being here with other people,” says James Berry, a lineman at Petit Jean Electric Cooperative in Clinton, Arkansas, who attended his first international rodeo in 2017. “We’re just showing off our trade. A lot of people don’t know what it takes to do what we do. You’ve got to respect it.”