By Laura Toraldo
(September 12, 2017—WILLIAMSPORT, Md.) Whether it’s a beautiful September day or the aftermath of a hurricane, electrical lineworkers are prepared to maintain the power lines that keep Maryland charged.
As many power companies struggle with the challenge of maintaining the next generation of these vital jobs, FirstEnergy is working towards a solution.
Seeing close to 30 percent of its employees in line to retire within the next few years, FirstEnergy sparked a partnership with Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in West Virginia to start a specialized curriculum, training electric lineworkers and substation workers through the Power Systems Institute program.
“It is beneficial for us to home grow our own linemen and substation men of tomorrow using the PSI program,” said Director of Operations Services Don McGettigan.
FirstEnergy started the program in 2000, covering tuition and book fees for qualified applicants. Through this two-year program, applicants split their time between the traditional classroom and the company’s Williamsport facility, where they develop specialized skills training.
“The work is always changing from what it was in the past, so they need to be comfortable with math and technology—as well as physically fit,” said Potomac Edison spokesman Todd Meyers.
Pole climbing, raising and lowering cross arms, repairing high-power transmission lines, and learning how to operate worksite vehicles are just the first steps in learning the ropes of line work.
“A skilled lineman is a very, very skilled individual,” said McGettigan.
After two years of rigorous safety training, one on one instruction from experienced lineworkers, and obtaining academic readiness, graduates walk with an associate’s degree and the technical skills to obtain a position—at a 98 percent hiring rate—with Potomac Edison or other subsidiaries of FirstEnergy.
Along with the high likelihood of employment, students are also offered 10-week summer placements where they can work with a crew, learn the work environment, and earn wages.
Meyers said about 75 percent of graduates are placed in Maryland—the majority in Frederick and Mt. Airy.
“They know a lot of basic skills when they come out of the program, but it is really just the beginning of their training,” said Meyers. “Electricity is always changing, so it’s a never-ending education.”
Meyers explained it takes four years to be a fully qualified lineworker. Each new hire is paired with a mentor who helps manage and guide them from a safety standpoint. Employees receive additional training once hired and have the opportunity to remain lineworkers or progress to management or supervisory roles.
“It’s nice to go into a field, knowing that if you do the things that you can control, you will have a pretty nice job at the other end,” said Meyers. “These are family-sustaining jobs, with good wages and good benefits, and the chance to move up within the company.”
Students discover the program through guidance counselors, career fairs, and word-of-mouth—several are children or relatives of current employees.
“They saw their dads do these jobs,” McGettigan said. “They know what is expected.”
With a smile, he added, “There is an old saying that being a lineman is more than just a career. It’s a way of life.”