Cariana Shultz always liked climbing, working with her hands and being outdoors.
So climbing utility poles and installing and repairing high-voltage wires in subfreezing temperatures seem like a dream come true to the 18-year-old from Forks Township.
Shultz is among 16 students enrolled this semester at Northampton Community College’s 12-week noncredit line worker program. The program was established four years ago with the help of PPL Corp. and other companies.
At Reading Area Community College, students can earn an associate degree in a two-year program, the Power Systems Institute, established by FirstEnergy/Met-Ed in 2014 to train students to become line and substation workers.
The programs are an effort by utility companies to fill the industrywide need for line workers expected in coming years from retiring baby boomers. The training the students receive at the community colleges helps get qualified workers in the pipeline.
Paul Wirth, a spokesman for PPL, said the NCC program is valuable because the graduates, who are entry level, have learned key skills.
“So when they apply here and are potentially accepted, they already have a leg up on someone who hasn’t been trained in those skills,” Wirth said.
Once they are hired at PPL, entry-level workers, called helpers, are trained in an apprentice program for several years, he said.
While employment at Met-Ed isn’t guaranteed for the RACC graduates, Met-Ed and its sister companies in New Jersey hire “the vast majority” of those students for line work and substation work, said Scott Surgeoner, a spokesman for Met-Ed in Reading.
Since FirstEnergy established its first Power Systems Institute in 2000, it has expanded it to other community colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia and Ohio and hired nearly 1,500 graduates.
Michele Pappalardo, associate dean for workforce development at NCC, said its program has a 50 to 60 percent placement rate, based on a survey of graduates.
Some of the local companies that have hired their graduates are PPL, Met-Ed and Henkels & McCoy.
Line work takes years of training and is physically demanding.
“It’s very specific work. You don’t just hire a lineman off the shelf somewhere,” Surgeoner said. “You work outside in all kinds of weather. And it’s very unfortunate work if not done properly.”
Which is a nice way of saying it’s dangerous work because you can get electrocuted.
375 HOURS OF TRAINING
Pappalardo said PPL approached NCC about establishing a line worker program and was instrumental in helping its development. PPL donated the poles the students train on behind Hartzell Hall on the campus in Bethlehem Township.
The program graduated its first class in fall 2013, and, since then, nearly 120 students have gone through the program. NCC runs two classes a year with a maximum of 16 students in each class, and there is a waiting list.
“The curriculum is run as if it is a job. It’s 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday for 12 weeks,” Pappalardo said. “It’s a total of 375 hours of instruction.”
Tuition and material fees cost about $5,350. The students pay an additional $600 to use climbing belts and hooks, which they take with them when the program ends.
Met-Ed pays the tuition, book and lab fees for students who enroll in its program.
Students are required to participate in an agility test before they are accepted into the program.
“It’s to show us whether or not they have the physical ability to do the job,” Pappalardo said.
At the end of the NCC program, students are tested and timed climbing a 40-foot pole, rescuing someone at the top and setting up and fixing lines. The instructors are retired PPL line workers with years of experience in the industry.
Students have an opportunity to network with company representatives at employer day at NCC.
“They have viable job leads before they graduate,” Pappalardo said.
Although salaries vary by region, industry and company, line work is potentially lucrative, especially at the journeyman and managerial levels. The jobs are usually union. The average starting salary is about $45,000 to $50,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Entry-level workers at PPL earn $27.83 an hour and journeyman line workers earn $44.97 an hour. Someone earning $40 an hour and working 37.5 hours a week would gross $78,000 annually.
“I had a [former] student under the age of 30 contact me and tell me he was buying his first home,” Pappalardo said. “There is a lot of money to be made in this industry.”
Line workers can earn more in overtime and shift work. For many, the chance to travel to other states is a draw, especially after hurricanes and other disasters that knock down power lines.
TRUST YOUR TOOLS
Stephen Pinciotti, a line instructor at NCC and a retired PPL line worker, teaches students how to climb the poles because line workers can’t use a bucket truck when poles are inaccessible.
“They have to put hooks on and climb. Some of them are a little more nervous than others,” Pinciotti said.
“For the most part, everybody seems to get over it. It’s not the fear of heights. It’s trust in your tools, in the belt and hooks.”
DISCIPLINE AND DESIRE
Pinciotti and the three other instructors at NCC teach students how to install hardware, tie in the wires, hang transformers, frame poles and install cross arms.
Safety is the most important lesson they teach, he said, because line workers handle wires carrying 800 to 12,000 volts of electricity. (Students do not train with live wires.)
Besides intelligence, Pinciotti said, for a student to make it as a line worker he or she must have discipline, desire and dedication.
“You have to like the work and like to work outside in all kinds of weather,” he said.
HELPING, TRAVELING, EARNING
Shultz is one of only two women in her class, but she is not fazed. She knows she has what it takes.
“I always helped my father do electrical work, plumbing, carpeting and other tasks when we remodeled houses,” she said.
When she learned about line work as a potential career and that she could get initial training through NCC, she said, “It just kind of fit. And it’s different. I was up for that challenge.
“It opened my eyes that you can help so many people and travel at the same time, as well as make a lot of money.”