As Population Grows, Demand for Power Line Workers Spurs Training ProgramsDec 13, 2022 04:21PM ● By Liv Osby
Catastrophic storms, booming development and aging infrastructure all have at least one thing in common – the need for power line workers. These craftspeople help put communities back together after devastating hurricanes, connect new homes and businesses to electrical service, and keep the power grid running.
But there’s a great demand for these technicians, so a push by Tri-County Technical College is helping to fill the gap, and increase diversity among the workforce in the bargain.
“It’s all about workforce shortage, and that’s the game of Tri-County,” said Ron Bryant, director of the Power Line Worker Certification Program’s transportation division.
“Tri-County is about transforming lives,” he said. “And there is serious interest in the program.”
Launched in 2019, Tri-County’s 12-week course prepares students for a good-paying career building and maintaining the electrical infrastructure.
Since the program began, 63 students have earned their power line worker certification, according to Tri-County. And Bryant says the program boasts a 95 percent placement rate.
Among those graduates are Justin Pressley and Hannah Loffler, who not only work for power companies now, but answer the call for diversity as well.
Pressley, a 30-year-old father of two, went to the Citadel for a year before going into the U.S. Navy. And after leaving the service, he wondered what career path he should pursue.
“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I used to work for Charter as a broadband technician … alongside the power guys when they came out, and I thought, ‘That looks like fun.’ ”
Then one of his friends told him about the Tri-County line worker program.
He was hired by Duke Energy last January and works out of its Clemson operations facility.
“I love it,” Pressley said. “I finally found the career I can see myself retiring from.”
Loffler, 20, comes from a family of truck drivers and thought she’d go into that line of work as well.
So she started out at Tri-County in the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) program. But a week into the class, she decided trucking wasn’t for her.
“I thought, ‘I don’t think I can stay on the road all the time,’ ” she recalls. “So I signed up for the power line class. And my first day … I was like, ‘Yeah, this is for me.’ ”
She is now a line worker with Sumter Utilities, working out of its Travelers Rest office.
The program is split into different sections covering everything from core safety and CPR to pole climbing and using the bucket truck, Bryant said.
“They’re never dealing with any hot wires out there,” he said. “And we’re really drilling safety, safety, safety continually.”
At the end of the course, students earn their Level One Certification, after which they attend a graduation, or rodeo, where they demonstrate their pole climbing, pole top rescue and other skills they’ve learned as their family, friends and power company partners watch, he said.
Power companies also want line workers to have a CDL to be able to drive equipment to disaster areas, Bryant said. So the students typically take that five-week course as well, he said.
Duke Energy spokesman Ryan Mosier said there’s always a steady demand for line workers to modernize the power grid and respond to the needs of growing development across the Carolinas.
Indeed, utilities across the country are looking for qualified candidates, he said.
But there’s also a need to address an aging workforce and to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, he said.
“We want to be one step ahead of the curve when folks are reaching retirement,” he said. “We have to be ready to provide the services (people) need 24/7. And everything starts with the line worker.”
Line worker certification programs at technical colleges and other institutions is a fairly new concept, especially in South Carolina, Mosier said.
Duke helped launch the effort at Tri-County and a number of other schools with a $1 million grant through the South Carolina Technical Colleges Association, he said.
It’s continued to support the program with additional grants as well as human capital, equipment, and training to ensure it will be as viable as possible, he said.
The program has also gotten funding from grants, other local business and industry partners, and from the Governor’s Workforce Scholarships for the Future initiative, which helps two-year colleges offer tuition-free classes to students, according to Tri-County.
As a result, the school is able to offer its power line worker certification and CDL programs at no cost to students, officials said.
Along with increasing the size of its workforce, Duke is focused on increasing diversity as well, including among line workers, a historically white, male workforce, Mosier said.
“Diversity brings new ideas, new ways of seeing things,” he said, “and having different backgrounds … helps build strong units, work groups, that can build towards a better way of doing business in the communities we serve.”
While he had no estimate of line workers who are women or people of color, he said the numbers are low, especially among women.
Mosier said it takes a certain kind of person to want to do line work in often challenging conditions, perhaps traveling to disaster zones far from their families.
“They don’t want to sit at a desk. They don’t want to be in a cubicle,” he said. “They want to be outside. And they have a devotion to take care of customers in South Carolina or across the country. It’s impressive.”
Loffler says she enjoys working with her hands, being outdoors, and helping people who lose power. But climbing poles, some as high as 50 feet, is where she excels, even as the pole begins to sway about half way up
“I absolutely love it,” said the Dacusville woman. “I had a couple jobs before this job, and I can’t even put into words how much I love it.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Loffler has no fear of heights and confesses with a chuckle that she loves amusement park rides and is even considering skydiving.
The job is physically demanding, leaving her tired at the end of the day, she said.
“But the next day,” she adds, “I’m ready to go again.”
Loffler says she was part of the effort locally to replace broken poles during Hurricane Ian.
“I worked a lot of long nights, but it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “People are in need and not just anybody can walk out there and turn on the power. I know I’m helping people.”
While she hasn’t met any other women in the field yet, she notes that her coworkers have been very supportive.
“I do get a lot of respect … from the guys,” she said. “They know how hard it is, and when they see someone smaller and younger than them, and being female, they definitely respect you.”
“People think she can’t do it,” Bryant said, “but she does a great job and people see that.”
Loffler says there’s a lot of opportunity for women in the field because power companies are looking for diversity.
“If you apply yourself, you can do whatever you want,” she said. “There’s no need to be scared to do something different.”
What’s more, there’s plenty of job security, room for advancement, and the pay is good, she said.
“This is the highest pay I have ever made in my whole working experience,” she said. “Other 20-year-olds I know are not making as much as I am.”
Bryant said the job typically pays $40,000 to $60,000 a year.
Pressley, of Anderson, also appreciates the salary.
He attended the course in 2020 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. while working nights as a maintenance technician at a bread factory. He also got his commercial driver’s license at Tri-County.
At first, he said, there were some weeks of classroom instruction on transformers, switches, voltage meters and more. After that, they spent their days outside simulating hanging lines, pulling and setting poles, and climbing.
“That was so much fun,” he said. “And I was really good at it.”
He also enjoys working outdoors, even in the sweltering South Carolina heat.
“I hated being stuck inside a place all day,” he said. “Being outside, I will take that over anything.”
Pressley, says Mosier, is “a shining star.”
Bryant said there’s a lot of excitement about the program, and with the addition of a second instructor, it’s grown from four to five classes a year and has a goal of 14 students per class.
Mosier said Duke works to identify the need for people, and the Tri-County program helps provide a quality workforce so that the company doesn’t get caught short.
“We are all in competition for these folks,” he said. “It’s a challenge across the industry.”