Apprentice to Lineman: Training Tough

April 13, 2016

It is a beautiful West Texas evening, warm and calm. The sound of laughter and the smell of a weeknight bar-b-que travel along the breeze. Just on the western horizon is a tall, blue cloud. The one we all know too well. It moves in fast, beginning with gusty winds, rain, lightning, thunder, and maybe even hail is soon to follow. It is a big one; the National Weather Service has issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Then, suddenly, darkness. It’s not surprising, especially for those living in rural areas, but the possibility of storm related power failure is always a reality.

When power fails, we don’t wait until morning or for the storm to pass to restore members’ power. Groups of linemen leave their families and head out into the storm. Some of them may not come home again for several hours, definitely not until the job is done. They are the only ones with the skills and knowledge to restore downed lines, snapped poles and blown transformers. And the scary part of this scenario is that looking into the future, there may not be enough of them.
 
Of course, these guys don’t just strap on their climbing gear and go out to fix lines the day they are hired. It takes years, even decades, of training to be dubbed an experienced lineman. They start off as apprentice linemen and usually work into journeyman status in five to seven years. In the old days, they learned on-the-job from the experienced linemen who’d been doing it for decades. Back then it could take up to 10 years to reach journeyman status. Today, South Plains Electric Cooperative has adopted a formalized system to create a highly-trained group of linemen to serve our members and our Co-op in the future.

Brandon Fuqua started his career at Lea County Electric in 1996. He was working on a nearby ranch when the general manager asked him to come work for the co-op. He respectfully declined, but after a few weeks, reconsidered the offer. 

“When I started at Lea County, there wasn’t an apprentice program. It was all on-the-job training. We had yearly evaluations and each year, depending on how you performed and what you retained, they moved you up a step.” Fuqua said. “I started taking calls with some help after my fourth year. I had to be confident in my abilities and what my foreman and superintendent taught me. I got my journeyman status in 2001.” 
Fuqua was hired by South Plains Electric in 2014 and now serves as a lead lineman for the construction department. 

“This is a dangerous business. You have to be aware of what you’re doing at all times. The members are always a top priority, but safety is first. Our job is to get the lights back on and to do it as safely as possible. During an outage, I don’t go home until everyone goes home. There is no sense in me going to the house until all of my guys are home, too,” Fuqua said.

South Plains Electric Cooperative (SPEC) has partnered with Northwest Lineman College™(NLC) in Denton to put new apprentices through a four-month training program before they begin working on SPEC crews. After their initial training and more than 144 hours working towards their first certification, apprentices rotate through each department within the co-op to learn all aspects of the business. They spend time on construction, maintenance, service, underground, and substations/metering. This system ensures that when a problem arises, all of our linemen are equipped to handle any situation. In addition to their rotations, apprentices spend two weeks back at NLC each year for additional classroom and field training. 

Carlyle Stokes recently acquired his journeyman status and is currently working in the maintenance department at SPEC. 

“Enthusiasm and initiative are really important in this line of work. You have to want to do it. I’m learning everything over again from a teacher’s perspective. I spent four and a half years learning, but now I’m in a position to teach the younger apprentices,” Stokes said. 

Generational gaps have raised concerns about the future leaders of line crews across the nation. In 2010, more than one-third of specialized technicians were estimated to be eligible for retirement by 2015. This means our future leaders, while they may be younger, will require the same amount of knowledge as their predecessors. Stokes said he recognizes the concern but feels his generation is up to the task.

“We have great management, and they look at us and see a group of guys who are capable of becoming the next generation of leaders. I see an opportunity to become better and to accept the responsibility those leadership roles require,” Stokes said.

Even after four months of experience at NLC and on-the-job training, first-year apprentices Glen Brozio and Garrett Greaves say there is still a lot to learn. They both decided that line work was something they were interested in and chose NLC in Denton as their preferred institution for learning.
 
“I worked for a contractor back home in New York and knew this was something I was interested in doing. I wanted to be in Texas, so Denton was a good fit,” said Brozio, who was hired directly out of NLC to join the team at South Plains Electric Cooperative. “I have learned a lot from the guys here in Lubbock. Before each job, we have a briefing, and I know to watch and see how they are doing it. We are constantly training, learning and getting better. That is something that never stops in this job.” 

Greaves, who was also hired directly out of the program at NLC, moved to Denton from Oregon to enroll and said he was a little nervous at first. 

“When we first started climbing, I was a little nervous on the tall poles, but once they started timing us and there was more on my mind, I got over it,” said Greaves. “It feels strange to get paid for what I do. It doesn’t feel like a job; it’s challenging and fun.”

South Plains Electric Cooperative is always working to provide the best service possible to our members. That includes having the best trained professionals around. April 11 is Lineman Appreciation Day, so when you have electricity to make your morning coffee after a stormy night, be sure and thank a lineman.