Learning the Lines
Somersetï¿½s new Community College Lineman Tech Center trains students in the lineman trade
Ever since he was a little boy, Dylan Combs has wanted to be a lineman.
Growing up, accompanying his mom, Lisa, to her job at Clark Energy Cooperative in Winchester, heï¿½d watch the linemen coming and going and imagine himself joining them one day.
Very soon, the 19-year-old may get his chance.
Combs is one of roughly 50 students so far to complete a training program at Somerset Community Collegeï¿½s new Lineman Tech Center, which opened last September. In March, the center moved to its new $2.3 million, 23,000-square-foot training facility in Somerset.
The centerï¿½s eight-week training courses are meant to be an orientation to the lineman career, says Dean Rhodes, the programï¿½s coordinator. Students learn basic safety and pole climbing skills, and how to identify, use, and maintain the essential tools of the trade.
ï¿½Ninety-seven percent of people out there have no true idea of what a lineman does in his work day,ï¿½ Rhodes says. ï¿½They think itï¿½s riding around in a bucket truck, because thatï¿½s what they see. But we introduce them to the career, letting students see what the job actually is.ï¿½
The classes left no doubt: being a lineman is a demanding job. But itï¿½s still the one Combs wants. And now he feels even more prepared to get it.
ï¿½I was surprised there was so much to learn,ï¿½ says Combs, who completed his training course in May. ï¿½All the different kinds of equipment and tools. How to do it the safe way. Itï¿½s definitely a job you have to want to do.ï¿½
But what about the challenge of shimmying up poles to tend to transformers or wires 40 feet above the ground? Combs feels ready. ï¿½Itï¿½s not exactly scary, itï¿½s just not what youï¿½d expect at first. After practicing for eight weeks in the classes, now itï¿½s just like standing on the ground to me.ï¿½
Sensing a need
Chris Allen of Lexington was hired by Pike Electric, a contractor company based in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, in the middle of his second session of classes at the Lineman Tech Center in April.
Turns out his nearly 14 weeks of climbing from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. atop the centerï¿½s outdoor and indoor training poles paid off.
On his first day on the job troubleshooting utility lines in Lexington, his foreman asked him if he thought he could climb.
Itï¿½s rare for a new lineman to climb a hot pole his first day in the field, but Allen was confident he could do it.
ï¿½I said I thought I could,ï¿½ says Allen, 19, whose uncle, Steve Allen, is a lineman for Nolin RECC in Elizabethtown. ï¿½So he sent me on up.ï¿½
Employers are ï¿½tickled to death with the training weï¿½re providing here,ï¿½ Rhodes says.
ï¿½Itï¿½s very challenging. You get to learn something new every day,ï¿½ says Jordan Mounce of Somerset, who completed his phase 1 training in May. ï¿½I loved it.ï¿½
Somersetï¿½s Lineman Tech Center is one of only three in the nation to have such an expansive indoor training facility and comprehensive curriculum, Rhodes adds.
David Wiles, chief officer with Somerset Community Collegeï¿½s Community, Workforce, and Economic Development Division, has lofty goals for the program: ï¿½We will not shortchange this program. We are going to provide the best lineman apprentices for this industry of any school in America.ï¿½
Thatï¿½s been Wilesï¿½ goal since South Kentucky RECCï¿½s CEO Allen Anderson first approached him with the idea of establishing a lineman training program at the community college five years ago.
By 2004, Anderson was finding it increasingly difficult to locate and hire qualified linemen.
ï¿½I got to checking, and that was the case around the country. Everyone was having the same problem,ï¿½ Anderson explains.
Carol Wright, then chief operations officer at South Kentucky RECC and now vice president of engineering and operations at Jackson Energy Cooperative in McKee, was also instrumental in laying the early groundwork for the program.
The three worked tirelessly to gather support and funding for the training center.
ï¿½You have projects that you work on, but this was more than a project to me,ï¿½ Wright says. ï¿½This is a passion of mine.ï¿½
Their enthusiasm was contagious. Soon help was pouring in for the program from throughout the state and beyond.
South Kentucky RECC was instrumental in securing grant funding and low-interest loans for the program, along with other key supplies. Owen Electric Cooperative donated computers to the program. Other co-ops, notably Jackson Energy, donated furniture and materials.
ï¿½So many people have donated things, Iï¿½m afraid Iï¿½ll leave somebody out,ï¿½ Rhodes says. laughing.
Four cooperativesï¿½Jackson Energy, South Kentucky RECC, Bluegrass Energy, and Owen Electricï¿½have a member on the Lineman Tech Centerï¿½s advisory board.
A lineman training facility operated by American Electric Power in Groveport, Ohioï¿½which served as the model for the Somerset facilityï¿½donated their curriculum to the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, for Somerset Community Collegeï¿½s use.
The Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation set aside the 8 acres of land that would eventually house the center.
Connecticut-based TEREX Corporation, manufacturer of utility vehicles, agreed to loan the center a bucket truck and digger truck at no cost. And Cox Industries, out of South Carolina, donated more than 60 utility poles, at a cost of roughly $400 each.
ï¿½I cannot attend a meeting anywhere in the state without someone coming up to me saying, ï¿½Is there anything you need? We want to help you with this,ï¿½ï¿½ Rhodes says. ï¿½Every piece of material that these students work with has been donated. The response has been so positive throughout the state.ï¿½
ï¿½This is a good career,ï¿½ Anderson says of the lineman profession. ï¿½There are a lot of young men and women out there willing to work, they just need the opportunity to learn about the field.ï¿½
Training the next generation
Students in the Lineman Tech Center are held to the same standards as a lineman in the field, though they are not actually exposed to hot lines during the course. They are subjected to the same industry-wide drug tests. They must follow the same code of conduct and safety regulations. They have to work during the phase 1 classes to earn their first-aid and CPR certifications and Commercial Driverï¿½s License.
The programï¿½s three instructorsï¿½Rhodes, who worked for 21 years at Kentucky Utilities as a lineman and line supervisor; Dan Newberry, a former lineman and line supervisor with 31 years of experience at Kentucky Utilities; and retired Warren Rural Electric lineman Eddie Sublett, who has nearly 42 years in the industryï¿½stress safety above all else.
ï¿½A lineman is not allowed a mistake. Itï¿½s your life, your co-workersï¿½ lives, the lives of people around you,ï¿½ Rhodes says. ï¿½Thatï¿½s why we emphasize that the safety manual is so key.ï¿½
Tuition for each eight-week session is $2,800, though roughly 80 percent of the students so far have been eligible to receive funds through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) to pay for the classes, Rhodes says.
The Lineman Tech Center packs so much into just eight weeks that graduates of even the phase 1 class are able to be hired at the level of apprentice linemanï¿½a qualification it would take six to eight months or even a year to earn had they been hired right off the street.
Though Rhodes has not yet begun full-fledged recruiting efforts for the program, it has maintained a steady waiting list of more than 100 students hoping to enroll in a phase 1 class. Each class is capped at 25 students per session. As a workforce training program, the classes are pass/fail, and students receive a certificate of completion, rather than academic credit, for participating in them.
About half of the students whoï¿½ve enrolled so far have been from the Somerset area. The other half have been from throughout the state, including Oldham County, Paducah, and Clark County.
In May, the center completed its first session of phase 2 classesï¿½more advanced in that students practice working on the lines as if they were hotï¿½and Rhodes hopes later this year and next to expand to offer phase 3 and 4 classes geared toward new linemen in their first year to year and a half in the field.
Roughly 40 percent of the students whoï¿½ve completed the programï¿½s introductory phase 1 or phase 2 classes have been hired by utility companies. Ten students had interviews the week following the conclusion of the fourth session in Mayï¿½not bad numbers, considering the current state of the economy, Rhodes says.
ï¿½Where most industries are laying off, we can tell our students that weï¿½re having real success placing them in jobs right away,ï¿½ he says.
Before he enrolled at the Lineman Tech Center, Zach Crawford, 23, of Somerset had never considered being a lineman.
ï¿½It had never even crossed my mind. I didnï¿½t even know what a lineman was,ï¿½ he says.
But when several of his friends enrolled in the program, Crawford thought heï¿½d give it a try, too.
Though he has his pilotï¿½s license and never had a fear of heights, it took Crawford awhile to learn to trust that his equipment wasnï¿½t going to let him fall, he says. The Tech Center classes were key in that.
Crawford says, ï¿½I feel very comfortable up there now.ï¿½
Now Crawford is several weeks into a new career as a lineman with Pike Electric, working on a year-long project to reset and upgrade voltage to new lines in Martinsville, Indiana, near Bloomington.
ï¿½So far, Iï¿½m enjoying it,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½Itï¿½s a lot more fast-paced than I expected. Itï¿½s hard work. Long days. Sunup to sundown. But itï¿½s really enjoyable.ï¿½
INTERESTED IN ATTENDING THE LINEMAN TECH CENTER?
Applicants to the Lineman Tech School must be 18 years old and have either a high school diploma or GED. Application materials are available online at www.linemantechcenter.com or www.kctcs.edu.
Tuition is $2,800 per eight-week session. To learn whether or not you might qualify for funds to pay for the program through the Workforce Investment Act, contact your local manpower services or unemployment office.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE : DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
To find out if you have what it takes to be a lineman, go to lineman training. All five items on the list have one thing in common: safety.