Nearly half of the utility workforce plans to retire in the next 5 to 10 years, and too few apprentices are in the pipeline to replace the veteran linemen. With 48 as the average age of a utility worker, the utility industry could be the first of the construction trades to feel the crunch, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over the last two years, I have talked to many linemen, and all of them have ranked the skilled labor shortage as the top challenge facing the utility industry. As many of them prepare to hang up their climbing hooks, they have expressed concern about who will fill their work boots.

Root of the Problem

While many utilities decreased their workforce as a result of deregulation, the career choice of many young high school students is also playing a role. Oftentimes, today's high school and college graduates would rather work in an office than out in the field. By working behind a desk rather than on a utility pole, they don't have to worry about severe weather or life-threatening work conditions.

At the same time, however, they are often not able to earn the same income as a lineman, and they most likely won't experience the adventure and camaraderie that comes with the line trade. When I've asked any of the linemen profiled in Life Line if they would go into the power industry if they could do it all over again, they always say the same thing: “I can't imagine doing anything else.”

Many linemen love their jobs, and they would give the shirts off their backs to help their coworkers. I haven't seen this kind of brotherhood or sisterhood in any other occupation. The linemen work together day and night to get the power on for their customers, and they often spend more time with their coworkers than with their families during power outages.

Tackling the Shortage

While linemen all know how important their jobs are to the utility industry and to their communities, the challenge lies in educating others about the need for more linemen. To alleviate the skilled labor shortage, utilities are shortening their apprenticeship programs, working with local technical schools and trying to draw more high school graduates into line work.

Utility companies nationwide are bracing for the shortage and devising strategies to recruit more workers. At the same time, however, linemen also can help to attract the next wave of workers on a more grassroots level. By educating young people at an early age, they can turn them on to not just a job but a lifelong career.

To get teenagers on board, linemen can give a presentation at local elementary schools or high schools, take part in the national “Take Your Child to Work Day” program, or invite young people to attend the International Lineman's Rodeo. At the rodeo, young people can catch a glimpse of the life of a lineman and meet prospective employers from utilities nationwide. A career fair at this event could help draw more interest in the line trade and help utilities to find their next great apprentice.

It's in the Family

While some linemen are reaching out to high schools, others are training their family members to become future linemen. I don't know how many linemen I've talked to who have brothers, fathers, uncles, sons or sisters in line work. They all say line work runs in their blood, and the tradition gets passed down from one generation to the next.

I've even seen young children at the rodeo who aspire to be linemen as soon as they can enter the apprenticeship program. While it's not unusual for children to want to follow in their parents' footsteps, the difference is that many times, these children actually do choose line work as a career.

Training the Next Generation

In addition to passing the tradition of line work through families, linemen also are committed to training new apprentices when they come on board. In many cases, linemen have told me that changing an apprentice from a “newbie” to a lineman is one of the most rewarding parts of their job.

Training an apprentice can demand a strong dose of patience and time, but nearly all veteran linemen say it's worth it in the end. As the utility industry is looking for more skilled workers, linemen can make a difference. Through teamwork and perseverance, linemen can help to recruit the next generation of linemen and work toward a brighter future.

What do you see for the future of line work in the next 10 or 20 years? E-mail me at afischbach@tdworld.com with your thoughts about the future of linemen and the utility industry.