July 7, 2008
Utilities hunt for workers to replace wave of retirees
The Plain Dealer
THOMAS ONDREY / THE PLAIN DEALER
CLEVELAND – Manuel McKinney and Jon Taylor fastened climbing spikes to their work boots, buckled harnesses low on their hips and glanced up at the 40-foot power poles.
If the recent high-school graduates could climb to dangerous heights, trust their equipment to keep them safe and hack the hard labor, they could earn $45,000 a year as utility line workers while still only 18.
The two are among 11 Cleveland public-school graduates who make up the first class of apprentices in a program launched by Mayor Frank Jackson, Public Utilities Director Barry Withers and public schools Chief Executive Officer Eugene Sanders.
The summer program, which pays $10 an hour, is one of several the city offers for students and recent graduates. The programs were started to give additional opportunities to students less likely to attend college.
"Not every high-school student wants to or can afford to go to college after graduation," Withers said in a news release.
The program for line workers at city-owned Cleveland Public Power offers an added bonus: Officials expect to hire five or six of the young men this fall for apprenticeships as line workers.
Public Power and FirstEnergy need line workers because the supply of qualified job applicants has not kept pace with retirements. The International Association of Electrical Workers reports that up to 60 percent of utility workers are expected to retire in the next two years.
Program participants who do not make it as line workers may get other Public Power jobs splicing cables, reading meters or repairing transformers. All of the jobs pay more than $40,000 a year.
But this is an opportunity, not a handout. Linemen are the backbone of the power industry. They look at other jobs for the utility – such as driving a truck and reading meters – the way Marines look at the other military branches.
Statewide apprenticeship information: www.lni.wa.gov/TradesLicensing/ Apprenticeship
Seattle City Light apprenticeships: www.seattle.gov/light/apprentice/
Line work is a strenuous, even dangerous. Carl Moore, a veteran lineman and instructor, told of scaling a pole during a recent storm as electricity arced between two lines, burning a hole in a tree.
The young participants saw the scarred hands of a superintendent who got hit by a high-voltage current.
Everyone expects half of the apprentices to wash out. Two quit almost immediately; another quit two days later.
The program gives those lacking the needed gumption to be linemen a chance to earn commercial driver's licenses – a valuable skill that could lead to a different job with Cleveland Public Power. But they received no promises.
Taylor and McKinney tried to sound bold, saying they were going to make it.
"Just climb like you're climbing the stairs," Scott Simmerly told the first-timers.
The 41-year-old lineman, who has proved himself in national competitions, plunged the spikes on his "hooks" into the pole, one after another, moving one hand over the other with each step up.
Of course, it's not that easy. Taylor and McKinney got nowhere fast.
Moore demonstrated next. He connected the strap attached to the harness around the pole, locked his legs and leaned back. This allows linemen to let go of poles and work with their hands.
"Keep your weight away from the pole or you'll fall," he said.
The instructors cleared Taylor to climb to the top. McKinney stayed close to the ground, worrying his harness wouldn't hold him.
"You've got to trust your tools," Simmerly said.
Taylor confidently climbed up and down several times. Then, on another trip down, he froze about 20 feet from the ground.
A top line connected to his harness wouldn't let him fall but it also wouldn't let him down unless he could move.
On the ground, Taylor said his left foot went numb. The numbness crept up his leg, his side, his arm and across his face.
An ambulance arrived. Paramedics gave him oxygen. Just before the ride to the hospital, where he would be treated and released, Taylor vowed to return.
That night, McKinney lay in bed aware this might be the best opportunity of his life. He had to trust his harness.
The next morning, the instructors heard that Taylor intended to return, but soon word came: Taylor decided being a lineman wasn't for him.
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