Apprentice to Journeyman: Training Tough Part Two

April 21, 2016

Last month we introduced you to four linemen working for the members of South Plains Electric Cooperative (SPEC). April 11 was nationally designated Lineman Appreciation Day, and we continue our celebration of these dedicated professionals into the month of May. South Plains Electric Cooperative is constantly striving to provide the best service possible to our members. That includes having the best trained professionals in the business.

Regardless of how they came to be linemen, every one of the guys out in the field is dedicated to keeping a consistent, reliable and safe source of power running to our members. 

Chase Strother, a fourth-year apprentice in Lubbock, left Angelo State University after an injury ended his career as a college athlete. 

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” Strother said. “I majored in business for a little while, but decided that wasn’t really for me. One day, as I was walking down the street, I saw some guys climbing poles and working on lines. I thought ‘that looks like fun’ and I enrolled in the lineman program at South Plains College.”

Strother completed a semester at South Plains College in Levelland, and his instructors told him he had the basic skills he needed to start applying for a job. A referral from a classmate led him to SPEC, who had openings for apprentice linemen at the time.

“The thing that I loved about this business is that school will only take you so far. Yes, it’s important to learn the basics and to do the refresher courses, but no amount of school can teach you what some of the guys who have been doing it for 40 years can,” Strother said. “They have seen just about everything that can happen, and they’re there to help you and keep you safe.” 

That is where the Co-op’s coordination with Northwest Lineman College™(NLC) and rotations through the different departments come into play. Apprentices learn the basics at NLC, then work with experienced linemen in the field, as well. During their apprenticeship, SPEC linemen return to NLC for two weeks each year for additional training.

The Rolling Plains Division of SPEC covers a vast area off the Caprock, stretching to Childress, Vernon, Crowell, Guthrie, Aspermont and back west, close to Post. The terrain of the Rolling Plains Division differs greatly from that of the Lubbock Division. While Lubbock’s landscape can offer its own challenges, the Rolling Plains Division faces miles of line in extremely rural areas, some that do not even have roads to them. During storms, crews often have bulldozers on call to help pull trucks out when they get stuck, then keep working. 

Jim Lile, an apprentice lineman in the Childress office, moved to Texas from Stafford, Mo., to attend NLC and was recruited by SPEC. He learned a lot about the terrain in his first few weeks at the Co-op.

“Sometimes you don’t drive out to downed lines, you just get drug,” Lile laughed. “There have been times when the dozer just pulled us along because we couldn’t keep the trucks from getting stuck, it was so muddy.”

Weather is often a major factor in getting lines back up during large outages. During Winter Storm Goliath in December, the Rolling Plains Division sustained more than 90 downed poles. Contractors and crews from Lubbock had to be called in to help get members’ power restored.

Rain or shine, (or sleet and snow for that matter) these guys are dedicated to the members they serve. Most of them wouldn’t say they are sacrificing much but focus on the pride in their jobs. Lile says he can’t imagine doing anything else. 

“If you love being outside, being challenged and getting better every day, then this is the place for you,” Lile said. “We work hard and there is so much to learn that it can be overwhelming at times, but this is where I know I’m supposed to be and I love what I do.”

Lile and his wife, Kayla, moved to Childress from their hometown in Missouri, and knew only the Co-op employees Jim met during his interviews. He said the Co-op family made the move much easier for the young couple. 

“Moving so far away from home was tough, but it brought my wife and I closer than we’d ever been. The Co-op family helped a lot, too. This isn’t a company, it’s a family,” Lile reiterated. “Everyone here wants you to be better, to be the best you can be, and we all take care of each other.”

For some, line work was a priority from the beginning, others came to it by chance. Daniel Woolley is originally from Spur, Texas, and wanted to raise his children in his hometown. 

“I was teaching at Howard College in Big Spring and coaching their livestock judging team. My job required me to travel a lot, and I had two young children. I was not happy being away from my family so often. I wanted my kids to grow up in Spur and be near my parents,” Woolley said. “When I heard there was an opening with SPEC in the Spur office, I jumped at the opportunity. I spent four months at the Northwest Lineman College after starting with SPEC.”

Woolley said being a lineman never really crossed his mind, until the opportunity to work for SPEC came along. “I have really enjoyed this job. It allows me to be home just about every night with my family, to raise them in a rural community. If you like to work outside and to work with your hands, I can’t stress the value of this kind of work enough. The compensation is nice, too; you are out doing a job and you get paid well for it.” 

The South Plains Electric Cooperative family of members is exactly who our linemen are dedicated to serving. They work long hours in all kinds of weather  to make sure members have reliable power. They also work at maintaining the system on a daily basis to help keep outages to a minimum during storms. So, the next time you see a lineman at church, the grocery store or maybe even the golf course, be sure to thank them for their service to the Co-op member family.