Guardians of the Grid: Young Linemen Find ‘Life on the Lines’ to Be Challenging and Rewarding.

Guardians of the Grid: Young Linemen Find ‘Life on the Lines’ to Be Challenging and Rewarding.

Mary Logan-Wolf
Guardians of the Grid: Young Linemen Find ‘Life on the Lines’ to Be Challenging and Rewarding.

Originally published in Oklahoma Living | Like a lot of kids fresh out of high school, Arlan Penrice graduated with a question mark over his future. After some pondering, he thought he’d study to become an electrician at the OSU Institute of Technology (OSUIT) in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a move that would provide useful trade skills plus an associate degree. He mentioned his plan to his neighbor, and as Penrice recalled, the man didn’t mince words.

“He said, ‘Why would you want to be a narrowback when you could be a lineman?’” Penrice said.

The comment gave the young man pause for thought. Right there and then he changed his mind—and his life. That fall the 18-year-old enrolled in OSUIT’s high voltage lineman program. The two-year program provides men and women of all walks of life the opportunity to earn an associate degree in applied science while learning the trade that keeps the lights on and the gravy warm for millions of U.S. citizens.

As professions go, a career as a lineman is a smart choice for students with the physical stamina and temperament to withstand the widely recognized rigors of the job—long hours in extreme weather with the ever-present risk of serious accident or electrocution. The pay is excellent: The average annual salary for trained journeymen linemen in Oklahoma is $51,000; however, an experienced journeyman lineman can earn $70,000 or more. Depending on the company, the job often comes with benefits such a health insurance and retirement programs. More important for job seekers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports the need for electric utility linemen is expected to increase by 13 percent by 2020. Electric cooperatives, in particular, are scrambling to hire linemen and other positions to prepare for the exodus of some 15,000 employees due to retirement.

At East Central Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (ECE) in Okmulgee, Eric Armstrong, human resources manager, reports that nearly half of the co-op’s 27 linemen will be eligible for retirement by 2027. Armstrong also serves on the advisory committee of the high voltage lineman program, a position that serves a dual purpose. Committee members represent various areas of the utility business and advise on industry-related developments that help the school turn out students who are trained to meet current industry needs.

“We’re also involved in their intern program, which is an excellent way to recruit graduating students,” Armstrong added.

One of the advantages of OSUIT’s lineman program is paid internships that are guaranteed to every student. For five out of the six semesters, students attend class for half a semester and work in the field for the remainder. The internships provide valuable on-the-job training with salaries of $16 to $24 per hour, depending on the company.

“It’s one of the unique aspects of our program,” said Steve Olmstead, dean of the construction technologies division at OSUIT. “With the paid internships, our students make enough money to pay 99 percent of tuition.”

As students move through the program, the school arranges internships that expose them to specialized areas such as transmission and distribution lines, substations, even working from helicopters, known in the industry as “bird on a wire.”

Lael Leblanc, apprentice lineman at ECE, interned with a utility contracting company while studying at OSUIT. After graduating in 2015, he stayed on with the company and was catapulted into one of the worst weather-related disasters in Oklahoma, Ice Storm Goliath. Barely four months on the job, Leblanc got his first real taste of life on the line. Called out on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas, Leblanc began a string of 16-hour workdays and discovered something remarkable—he loved it.

“It was a rush getting to go out, working to get the power back on, and knowing so many people were relying on us,” he said.

That the self-described outdoorsman finds the grueling work stimulating is no surprise—Leblanc also noodles. The hobby involves shoving an arm into dark underwater holes and encouraging catfish upwards of 50 pounds to bite it. The ensuing fish-versus-man wrestling match often results in the loss of human skin and even painful fish-inflicted punctures. Fun.

It does, however, get the blood pumping. That adrenaline rush, the challenging conditions, and the ever-present potential for danger appeals to those with the “lineman mentality,” explained John Kirkwood. Not everyone who walks in off the street has the fortitude or level of commitment required to be a lineman, Kirkwood said. He ought to know: The director of field operations for Northwestern Electric Cooperative (NWEC) in Woodward, Oklahoma, worked as a lineman for 28 years before shifting to supervisory work.

Before hiring a “grunt,”—that’s short for a potential lineman with zero experience—Kirkwood and another veteran lineman sit down with applicants and explain what the job entails.

“We tell them war stories to give them a good idea of what we do,” he said. “Usually a light comes on, and they start thinking maybe that’s not for them.”

At OSUIT, trainers wisely adjust the program so candidates who lack the right stuff to be linemen can avoid investing time and money in a career for which they’re ill-suited. First on the agenda: Climbing poles.

“We have a pre-enrollment session where potential students come and we put them on poles,” said Dell Dunham, OSUIT high voltage instructor, and an experienced lineman himself. “We give them a taste of it to see if they want to change their mind.”

Roughly 1 to 2 percent of applicants decide against it, he added. Once the program begins, the first 16 weeks are devoted to climbing poles 30 to 70 feet high. This process may cull as many as half of the first-year students.

“When you see students who are hesitant, that’s usually a sign of some type of fear,” Dunham noted.

While caution and awareness are integral to staying safe, linemen are required to work quickly, he added. Public comfort aside, electricity ensures economic prosperity, safety, good health and happy citizens, among other things. As guardians of the grid, the lineman’s mission is to restore power fast without harm to life or limb, meaning arms, legs, fingers and toes.

Training on the job with experienced linemen, classroom learning, and ongoing safety meetings and professional development seminars ensure electric co-op linemen of all ages stay alive and well. At the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives (OAEC), Kenny Guffey, director of safety and loss control, racks up thousands of road miles traveling to Oklahoma’s 30 electric co-ops to present over 200 safety programs each year for linemen. OAEC sponsors an additional 14 workshops at their training facility in Oklahoma City. To further solidify the message, local co-ops hold monthly safety meetings as well as on-site tailgate meetings where crews assess the details and risks of a job before the work begins.

The payoff for the safety awareness is fewer accidents and fatalities. Oklahoma co-ops count six work-related lineman deaths over the past 25 years. That’s six too many for Guffey, but he is pleased that the industry-wide focus on safety, along with the ongoing development of improved tools and climbing equipment, are making a difference.

“Years ago it was almost a badge of honor to have burn scars on your arm. Anymore, not so much,” Guffey said. “The guys who impress me are the ones who retire with all their fingers and toes.”

Lineman injuries, Guffey pointed out, nearly always point to a moment of carelessness or complacency.

“Ninety-nine percent of injuries are because that lineman didn’t do something right,” Guffey said. “Line work is only as dangerous as you allow it to be. With proper work practices, and the knowledge and training that we have today, there’s no reason why every lineman shouldn’t go home every night,” Guffey said.

That’s some comfort for the families who wait at home while the weather rages, knowing their loved one is out there somewhere in the thick of it.

Back in Woodward, Arlan Penrice is now a tech III apprentice lineman at NWEC and expects to earn his journeyman lineman certification in a year and a half. While he had his pick of great job offers after graduating from OSUIT, he knew where he wanted to be—at home.

“I could’ve gone anywhere, but I liked the co-op atmosphere,” Penrice said. “Everyone here is like family, and they honestly care about you.”

Last year, Penrice scored 500 hours of overtime, much of it working through western Oklahoma’s catastrophic December ice storm. Sure, he’s had a few tight moments on the job—fireballs flaring in his face when a wrench taps a floater line, stomach-dropping rides in a bucket bouncing in a 40-mile-an-hour wind—but none of it dampens his enthusiasm.

When friends rib him about his work, asking him why he doesn’t live a little bit, Penrice tells them, “I live every day.”

“When you’re up in a bucket truck with no one else around, and the sun comes up over the Gloss Mountains, that’s when you tell yourself, I love my job,” said Penrice