Help Wanted: Must Like Heights And High Voltage | KUOW News and Information

Help Wanted: Must Like Heights And High Voltage

Nov 11, 2015
Originally published on November 11, 2015 11:08 am

Looking for a job? How about working way up in the air, in all kinds of weather, with thousands of volts of electricity?

Working on high-voltage lines pays well and doesn't require a degree, but electric utilities are hard-pressed to replace retiring linemen.

If you want to learn about the dedication and character needed to be a lineman, look no farther than a place with a super-abundance of line workers: the International Lineman's Rodeo.

Each year, the best linemen from across the country test their skills in a field in Kansas. Picture a forest of closely spaced utility poles — almost like a giant hairbrush — with hundreds of burly men, in hard hats and heavy boots with spikes, working furiously.

Throw in lots of tools and American flags, and you begin to imagine an annual competition some call a "testosterone vortex."

"The International Lineman's Rodeo is the Super Bowl of rodeo for linemen," says Martin Putnam, an organizer and former champion lineman.

Sporting a sharp flattop, he says the very top workers qualify to compete here amid the best in a macho, but exacting, field.

"They're kinda cowboys. Here's guys that are handling 7,200 volts every day. It's a different deal," Putnam says.

Long hours fixing lines are more common than not, especially after hurricanes, ice storms and tornadoes. Still, many linemen say they wouldn't do anything else, despite the dangers that veterans like Danny Haithcock know well.

"Matter of fact, I lost my older brother, to electrical contact in '91. And I know a lot of other guys, arms burnt off, legs burnt off, of course, lost their life as well. But that doesn't happen that often anymore," Haithcock says.

He's been on the job for 28 years. That's not uncommon. About a third of linemen working today will retire in the next decade, a serious issue for the utility industry.

'A Certain Breed Of Cat'

This year's competition will happen against the backdrop of a pending disaster for utility companies. They face an acute shortage of line workers as employees who were forced to put off retirement during the recession head for the exits. Trade groups are trying to figure out how to entice millennials into the field.

"Kids don't like it. It's hard to find young men and women to do this," Putnam says.

Line work pays well — more than $40 an hour with experience — around Kansas City. But Putnam says there is still a shortage.

"Nobody wants to climb poles, everyone's afraid of electricity. You work at night, you work in the storms. It takes a certain breed of cat. I mean, heck, you can't get a kid to lick a stamp, much less climb a pole," Putnam says.

The utility industry confronted this problem about a decade ago, when it set up the Center for Energy Workforce Development, or CEWD.

"When we started, we were looking at about half the workforce leaving in five years," Ann Randazzo, director of CEWD, says.

That's a terrifying prospect because it takes almost five years to fully train a line worker.

Randazzo says the recession delayed the problem, because baby boomers put off retirement. In the meantime, she says, the industry has recruited thousands of replacement line workers by promoting line work in high schools and even elementary schools, producing documentaries and setting up dozens of training programs in the past few years.

The industry is also looking for more women — there's only about one woman for every hundred men.

"Women just don't know about the opportunity, and the money they can make, if they like working outside. I look for farm girls. They like working outside, know what their responsibilities are," says Susan Blaser, director of a program at a junior college in Kansas City, Mo. Blaser is a former line worker herself.

For line work, you have to give up not only comfort on the job, but something almost vital to a lot of people: a cellphone.

"Distractions lead to accidents. Phones are accidents, unfortunately," Blaser says.

Careful, Hearty And Crazy

Despite the odds, retiring linemen were more than matched by new recruits last year, like 33-year-old Jeremy Kunz.

"I like a challenge, and what's more challenging than something that's real dangerous?" Kunz says.

A challenge like messing with something so powerful it can kill you, high up on a pole, in terrible weather?

"That's right! Don't get much worse than that!" Kunz says.

People with the special mix of careful, hearty and crazy it takes to be a line worker aren't getting any easier to find. Fortunately, the utilities are getting better at finding them.

Copyright 2015 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

How about this for a job description - hard physical work, mostly done way up in the air, in all kinds of weather, with thousands of volts of electricity. Working on high-voltage lines pays well, but utility companies are having a hard time replacing retiring lineman. Frank Morris of member station KCUR begins our story at the International Lineman's Rodeo.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Picture a forest of closely spaced utility poles, almost like a giant hairbrush with hundreds of burly men in hard hats, heavy boots with spikes, working furiously.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Smooth, Bobby, smooth, nice job.

MORRIS: Throw in lots of tools and American flags and you begin to imagine an annual competition that some call a testosterone vortex.

MARTIN PUTNAM: The International Lineman's Rodeo is the Super Bowl of rodeos for lineman.

MORRIS: Organizer Martin Putnam, a former champion lineman himself, sporting a sharp flattop, says top workers qualify to compete here, among the best in a macho but exacting field.

PUTNAM: They're kind of cowboys. You know, here's guys that are handling 7,200 volts every day, you know? It's a different deal.

MORRIS: Especially considering the long hours fixing lines after hurricanes, ice storms and tornadoes. Still, many linemen say they wouldn't do anything else, despite the dangers that veterans like Danny Haithcock know well.

DANNY HAITHCOCK: As a matter of fact, I lost my older brother to electrical contact. That doesn't happen that often anymore.

MORRIS: Haithcock has been on the job for 28 years. That's not uncommon. About a third of the lineman working today will retire in the next decade, a serious issue for the utility industry.

PUTNAM: Kids don't like it. It's hard to find young men and women to do this.

MORRIS: Martin Putnam again. Line work pays well, more than $40 an hour with experience around Kansas City, but...

PUTNAM: Nobody wants to climb polls, everyone's afraid of electricity. You work at night. You work in the storms. It takes a certain breed of cat. I mean, heck, today you can't get a kid to lick a stamp, much less climb a pole.

MORRIS: The utility industry confronted this problem about a decade ago when it set up the Center for Energy Workforce Development, where Anne Randazzo's in charge.

ANNE RANDAZZO: When we started, we were looking at about half of the workforce leaving within five years.

MORRIS: A terrifying prospect because it takes almost five years to fully train a line worker. Randazzo says the recession delayed the problem because baby boomers put off retirement. In the meantime, she says, the industry has recruited thousands of replacement line workers by promoting line work in high schools, even elementary schools, producing documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The best part about being a lineman I have to say is the men I work with and the people I meet.

MORRIS: And setting up dozens of training programs in the last few years.

SUSAN BLASER: This is our training yard, basically our lab for the program

MORRIS: It's another grove of utility poles - this one at a junior college in Kansas City, Mo. Director Susan Blaser - in the pink hard hat, a former line worker - is a rarity in a field with only about one woman for every hundred men.

BLASER: Women just don't know about the opportunity and the money that they can make if they like working outside. I look for farm girls. They like working outside and know what their responsibilities are.

MORRIS: And for line work, you'd have to give up not only comfort on the job but something almost vital to lots of people - a cellphone.

BLASER: Because distractions lead to accidents. Phones are accidents (laughter) unfortunately.

MORRIS: But despite the odds, last year retiring linemen were more than matched by new recruits, like 33-year-old Jeremy Kunz.

JEREMY KUNZ: I like a challenge, and what's more challenging than messing with something that's real dangerous?

MORRIS: Well, messing with something really dangerous high up on a pole in terrible weather.

KUNZ: That's right. It doesn't get much worse than that.

MORRIS: People with that special mix of careful, hearty and crazy it takes to be a line worker aren't getting any easier to find. But fortunately, for I guess everyone who likes electric power, the utilities are getting better at finding them. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.