Utilities across the country are finding ways to address the shortage of trained linemen and the shrinking workforce in field operations. Much has been written about the “knowledge walking out the door” either to retirement or to a better paying job outside the industry. But smaller utilities, many of them municipalities, have an even greater challenge, as Mike Conyers of Missouri Public Utility Alliance (MPUA) has learned. The local hometown utility does all the hard work of recruiting new line workers only to have them recruited by a bigger company when they go out of town for their book training.
These concerns were discussed several years ago by a range of Missouri municipal utilities at a meeting in Columbia, Missouri. MPUA members from across the state met to talk about workforce shortages and how to recruit and retain skilled line workers in their communities. Several participants at the well-attended meeting said that they thought there was an alarming decrease in applicants for line worker positions and that other city workers were no longer crossing over to apply for those positions.
One of the best ideas to come out of that meeting, as well as follow-up visits Conyers made to local utilities, was to create and offer a first-rate, on-the-job line worker training program. The idea behind MPUA's Apprentice Line Workers Program was to hold classes in multiple locations and close enough to the smaller utilities so that more utilities would be able to participate. Also built into the on-the-job training model was the expectation that local new hires would maintain a long-term connection with their community while becoming established in the ways of the utility company.
With the approval and support of the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission, Conyers spearheaded the curriculum design and set up the first classes at four different Missouri utilities that agreed to use their facilities as training centers: Independence, Fulton, Poplar Bluff and Lebanon. The students were asked to go to one of the four locations for training. This allowed even the smallest utility to send a student and, if an emergency came up, the student could quickly head back home to take care of the problem.
Classes started in mid-March 2003 with five students enrolled. Because this was a new program, many utilities were waiting to see how it worked and whether it would indeed work. Since then, municipal electric utilities — particularly those located in small towns and other rural Missouri areas feeling the crunch of employing qualified electric line workers — have jumped on board.
Last year's graduating class included 29 apprentice line workers who became certified as journeymen by completing the requirements of MPUA's four-year Apprentice Line Workers Program. This was a landmark achievement for the alliance, not only in filling potential workforce voids with qualified workers, but also in successfully making the program available to all alliance member utilities throughout Missouri. Conyers and his Advisory Committee of line workers, managers, superintendents and safety coordinators are making a significant difference due in great part to the strategic design of decentralizing training so that line workers would not have to leave their communities for classroom studies.
Conyers travels regularly to the training centers in the program, visiting half of the training centers one month and the other half the following month. During the month in which the training centers are not being visited, testing information is mailed to the apprentice coordinator at the host utility and distributed to the apprentices.
For 2006, MPUA has retained Diversified Electric, a division of WESCO Distribution, and ABB to further refine the content of its Apprentice Line Workers Program. ABB's Tom Ward, an experienced line worker, will teach classes in six different locations across Missouri. MPUA is also working with WESCO on several projects that will result in many new training opportunities for the 2006 schedule.
This year's curriculum, which combines classroom and correspondence academics with practical hands-on training, includes in-depth modules on topics ranging from line tools to substation inspection and overhead maintenance of conductors. Training modules include detailed instruction, diagrams and examples.
MPUA's curriculum is also being used by Kansas Municipal Utilities, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities and Municipal Electric Systems of Oklahoma, and has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Training.
Thanks to Mike Conyers, Missouri utilities are able to take advantage of apprentice training because it is offered within a reasonable distance from their locations, regardless of their size. In Conyers' own words: “The goal is to deliver this outstanding training to their doorstep.” My hat is off to Conyers and the Missouri Public Utility Alliance.