Currently, only about 2% of linemen are women, but that number could soon change with today's skilled labor shortage. As more baby boomers are retiring from the trade, the door of opportunity is swinging open for those who have good climbing skills, are willing to work hard, and enjoy working outside and with their hands.
To train the next wave of linemen, the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College (LATTC) traditionally offers two training sessions in the spring and the fall. While both men and women are welcome to join these training classes, only two of the participants have been female since 2008.
In the summer of 2010, however, the college trained its first all-female utility lineman class. To offer the free 12-week, 600-hour program, the college partnered with a nonprofit organization called Women in Non Traditional Employment Roles (WINTER). This organization, which helps women to break into predominantly male occupations, privately funded the course with help from a $1 million Clean Energy Workforce Grant. A group of tradeswomen founded the association as a way to extend opportunities in high-skill, high-wage markets to economically disadvantaged women.
After WINTER advertised the free training program, about 80 to 100 women showed up for a boot camp at the college campus. During this event, WINTER tested the women's fitness levels by having them run and do pushups. The organization then selected 30 women who had enough upper body strength and conditioning to handle the job of a line worker.
The 30 candidates ranged from 18 to 50 years old. Each participant came from a different background and had a different reason for pursuing line work as a possible career. For example, one woman was the granddaughter of a lineman, and another took a line worker training class at the East Los Angeles Skills Center and wanted to try a different version of it. Yet another candidate was a jewelry designer looking to make a change, and another was homeless and looking for a job where she could work outdoors with her hands.
During the training program, the women learned about the job responsibilities of a line worker through both classroom and hands-on training. From about 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., the women performed training exercises in the pole yard at the college in downtown Los Angeles. From 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the women attended lectures and classroom studies related to the trade.
One of the key aspects of the curriculum was climbing since it comprises much of the day-to-day work of a line worker. Often, when electric utilities bring in candidates, many potential workers can't climb and work on poles and structures. As a result, they may drop out or be asked to leave the program because of their fear of heights or unwillingness to climb and work on the poles and structures.
Because it requires a significant investment to train line worker apprentices, companies often prefer to screen candidates who have already had some form of climbing training. By bringing in men and women who are certified climbers, utilities often have a better chance of moving these candidates through the apprenticeship program.
For that reason, LATTC taught the women how to become proficient climbers. To make the women feel comfortable working at the top of the pole, the instructors asked them to install and remove several overhead line constructions and the related ground work.
The students also installed solar streetlights, tied 15 knots blindfolded, reeved and used block and tackle, and practiced material preparation and delivery. Within the class, many were good climbers and enjoyed scaling the poles during the lab portion of the training course.
While on the 35-ft poles, the women often wore fall protection including a belt and a fall arrest system from Buckingham Manufacturing. In addition, they practiced free-climbing in the event that they had to get down from a pole in a hurry or rescue another worker.
While many utilities now don't allow their linemen to free-climb on the system, it is still a necessary skill in the event of an emergency such as a grass fire. If the fire starts coming up the pole, the line workers need to know how to take a breath and climb down as quickly as possible.
Once they showed proficiency with free-climbing, the women then moved on to learning how to climb over obstructions. Often, when line workers need to move around a telephone cable, secondary racks or crossarms, they are required to stay belted. The women learned how to use a safety lanyard or a second safety belt to be continuously belted as they maneuvered past obstructions on a pole.
Along with climbing poles, the women also had the opportunity to operate heavy machinery such as a digger derrick from Altec. They used this piece of equipment to dig holes, and install and remove transformers and poles.
During the 10-hour day, the women not only practiced out in the “lab,” which is the pole yard at the college, but they also trained in the classroom.
The students learned about basic electrical safety as well as job hunting skills, such as interviewing and résumé writing. In addition, they received a basic understanding of rigging. The instructor taught them how to figure out basic rigging problems and then demonstrate their skills out in the pole yard. For example, they rigged the block and tackle to make the mechanical advantage needed for hoisting heavy objects such as transformers and poles. They also had to calculate the load on the structure and the friction of different block combinations.
At the close of the 600-hour, 12-week course, the instructors tested the women in climbing skills, safety precautions, equipment knowledge and other skills. About 22 out of the 30 participants made it to the end of the training session and many have gone on to pursue jobs in the power industry.
For example, some of the graduates are now working for union contractors out of IBEW Local 47 in Riverside, California. These women are working as lineman's helpers for contractors doing work on a photovoltaic project for Southern California Edison. To break into the utility industry, others are considering working for San Diego Gas & Electric on the construction side.
Following the training program, several women are planning on pursuing apprenticeships at electric utilities. With their certificate in hand, many have found that it has given them a foot in the door at many companies.
The aging workforce and the demand for workers to maintain and improve the transmission grid soon will create more openings in the utility trade for both male and female line workers alike. In today's world, many people don't want to work hard for a living anymore, yet the women who graduated from the course don't shy away from hard work. In fact, throughout the training session, the women wore the “Rosie the Riveter” decal on their hard hats and their motto was “Yes We Can.”
While women comprise a slim percentage of the total number of line workers today, programs like the one at LATTC can help to reverse that trend. Utilities need not just manpower, but “people power” to meet the demand for skilled workers. In the future, the college instructors expect the industry to turn a blind eye to gender and hire and train more female line workers.
In the meantime, the instructors expect the graduates of the program to serve as exemplary employees for California utilities. After proving themselves in the classroom and in the training yard, they are now working to break into the utility industry. Due to their commitment to the job and their desire to work hard and learn on the job, the instructors think this group of women has a good chance of becoming successful apprentices and journeymen linemen in the future.
Depending on the demand and the funding available, the college hopes to offer another free training program for women line workers in the future. By working to educate Los Angeles area women about the opportunities in the power industry, the college is helping to alleviate the skilled labor shortage and make a difference in the lives of these women.
Ken Bushman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an instructor for the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College in Los Angeles, California. Before joining the faculty at the college, he worked for 30 years at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. He became a journeyman lineman at the City of Burbank, Public Service Department in California.
Editor's note: To view a video of the women who participated in the line worker training program, please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ltSkv34mN0.
Altec Industries www.altec.com
Buckingham Manufacturing www.buckinghammfg.com
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers www.ibew.org
Los Angeles Trade Technical College www.lattc.edu
Southern California Edison www.sce.com
Women in Non Traditional Employment Roles www.winterwomen.org