Kaitlyn Vaillancourt was tired of working dead-end jobs. The Michigan native was looking for a change in scenery, eager to get her life started. Then her brother showed her the website for Northwest Lineman College.
Admitting that she had never heard of linework as a career, Vaillancourt, 21, was intrigued.
“I had all these friends that were getting degrees and not ending up with a job. So I was like, ‘Well, if I can go and do a program for four months and end up with a really good job with benefits, why wouldn’t I do that instead?’ Especially if it’s going to be what I like…going outside and using your head a little bit. I decided to give it a shot, and it worked out, because I really enjoy the career path.”
Today, Vaillancourt is a third-year apprentice at Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Johnson City, Texas, the nation’s largest electric co-op. She’s currently the co-op’s only female lineworker among its 210 line crews.
Vaillancourt is an example of how the electric utility industry is broadening its reach to attract untapped populations to fill these high-paying, high-skills jobs. Faced with dire shortages in engineers and lineworkers 10 years ago, energy utilities have started to narrow the hiring gap in the trade.
The Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), a non-profit consortium of energy utilities formed in 2006 to address employment, has launched Get Into Energy, an initiative to help utilities recruit and train women, youth, military veterans and others into these jobs. Some of those efforts have borne fruit since CEWD’s first survey in 2007, which found that between 40 to 60 percent of skilled workers and engineers were set to retire by 2012.
CEWD surveys report higher levels of replacement and growth––5 percent in 2014, 9 percent in 2015 and 7 percent in 2016. In addition, workers are getting younger. Electric co-ops have the youngest workforce, with only 25 percent of employees over the age of 53.
And “when looking at just the key job categories, the percentage of engineers and lineworkers under age 32 continues to increase at 29 percent and 30 percent respectively, reflecting the focus on hiring in these categories,” according to a 2017 CEWD survey.
Nevertheless, electric co-ops aren’t slacking off linework recruitments just yet. It takes at least four years to fully train a lineworker. Tenacious people unfazed by heights and working with high voltages are in short supply.
Electric co-ops are learning that it’s not enough to simply roll out the welcome mat and hope people show up. The past decade has seen a proliferation of “pre-apprentice” programs, either at community colleges or lineman schools, which give students basic knowledge and skills before placing them at utilities.
CEWD also sponsors Careers in Energy Week in mid-October to help energy companies and local communities, including schools, increase public awareness of jobs in the field. As more utilities get involved in these and other initiatives, interest in linework and related jobs will grow.
Certification through the Department of Labor’s apprenticeship program is enabling utilities to provide on-the-job training. If all goes well, apprentices completing the four-year, 8,000-hour linework program reach the top of the trade: journey lineworker.
Vaillancourt says she’s in linework for the long haul and would love to encourage women to get into more trades because it’s a really good career path.
“I don’t see myself in any other career,” says Vaillancourt. “I see myself making this work for a long time because nothing else really appeals to me, and I truly do enjoy this job.”
Victoria Rocha writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives.