Although we reap the benefits of power lines every day, we often forget about them, at least until they’re downed by winds and storms, leaving food warm, water taps dry and alarm clocks flashing.
The Lineman Institute of the Northeast welcomes its first class of prospective electrical linemen in September. All six have already been offered positions at Eversource Energy in Massachusetts.
The school’s 5,000-square-feet Saugerties facility, which includes a small field where students practice erecting, removing, scaling and outfitting utility poles, is neatly obscured behind storefronts on Tomson’s Road. With the upcoming 2019 session already at capacity for enrollment with 21 students, the current class’ graduation will be marked with a public “Linemen’s Rodeo” at the facility. Mimicking the annual International Linemen Rodeo held in Kansas, traditional trade skills will be turn them into timed aerial competitions.
The 15-week program is the only one of its kind in New York State. While a smattering of community-college programs exist in other Northeastern states, the most prominent schools for such training are in more southern regions like Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri and Georgia. Founder and instructor Donald Leiching, who held a managerial position with Central Hudson until establishing the school, said that the idea was born from a combination of his love for the work and the realization there was a job niche that needed filling.
“I started hiring a lot of students from down South and getting a grasp of [the curriculum of linemen schools],” explained Leiching. “I’ve done this forever, I enjoy doing it and I enjoy being back outside. There’s always a shortage of qualified linemen. We pushed all of our kids into colleges. [Linemen] leave this program and start making $75,000 per year.”
According to the program’s course catalog, Leiching has taught linemen in varying capacities for 25 years. He’s worked with the pre-apprentice stage and with journeymen, including a program at a hot-stick school that is still being utilized today. I watched the students, currently in their eleventh week of training, using an auger truck to drill holes for utility poles in the practice field.
“Honestly, when I was like a little kid my neighbor was a lineman. He used to come home for lunch and I always thought the [bucket] truck was kind of cool,” said student Mark Kruszewski, a Connecticut native who used to work as a snowblower at Mount Snow in Vermont. I just want to be a hero. I enjoy working in inclement weather and helping people. When I was making snow, people would be overjoyed when you would open up a rail. Linemen, though, go out during hurricanes when no one has power. The first thing you want is power; all these people are excited to see you.”
Though Kruszewski lives in an RV near the site, the program provides lodging for out-of-state students. The school currently owns three houses in which students can stay, says Donald’s wife Nanci and their daughter Brinnah manage the office component of the burgeoning school. Also housed indoors are a series of smaller utility poles, specially installed and stretching up through removed tiles in the ceiling. There’s an indoor classroom space where students learn the finer points of linesmanship, like OSHA certification. In addition to the housing opportunity, students are also given support if they wish to earn their commercial driver’s license, or CDL, a certification that is not required to be earned by the linesman’s program, but also highly attractive if not outright required by potential employers.
Students simply learn to climb poles in the first four weeks of the program. “You learn whether you’re afraid of heights,” noted one student. At one point, power-line workers climbed to the top of a utility pole before they affixed themselves with ropes onto the pole. Now, the use of bucket trucks and forms of safety equipment have severely reduced the number of accidents once visited upon the profession, which once boasted significant casualties.
“Safety is of the utmost importance. Industry safety practices have improved tremendously in the last 100 years,” said Leiching. “The mortality rate was once 50 percent. Half of them died on the job. But now, due to those safety standards, the risks of the job have gone down considerably. It’s a matter of forming good habits from the beginning. If you do, you’re going to do well.”
After their 15th week of training, the six students will be presented with a certificate of completion and then scale the poles once again in a series of competitive, timed events. One, an obstacle course within a circle of utility poles; another, the “Hurt Man” competition, in which a dummy is belayed carefully from the top of a pole as quickly and gently as possible; and the last, which simply determines the speediest climber. These events can be seen at the public graduation ceremony on Dec. 21 at 8 a.m.