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Published: Saturday, 10/9/2010

Utilities seek, train new employees to replace those nearing retirement

BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

BERLIN, Conn. — In the worst recession in memory, Helen Duguay discovered that climbing utility poles is a better career choice than selling real estate.

A former real estate agent who has been out of work since May, the 43-year-old mother of five is learning to scale poles and operate a crane, a backhoe, and other equipment that electricity providers and gas companies use at construction sites.

“We all have to be flexible in what we can do,” Ms. Duguay said. “I've never done this before.”

A 12-week training program organized by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association has drawn Ms. Duguay and 11 other prospective workers. Partly funded by federal stimulus money, the program is a good match for the unemployed people looking for a job and for utilities seeking to replenish a labor force about to be hit hard by retirements.

The Connecticut program is similar to one established nearly a decade ago in metro Toledo by FirstEnergy Corp. with help from Owens Community College in Perrysburg Township.

Dubbed its Power Systems Institute, the 18-month, tuition-free program trains future line workers both in the classroom and in the field.

Those who complete it successfully receive not only an associate's degree from Owens but also a line-crew job offer from FirstEnergy, company spokesman Ellen Raines said.

“We think we were the first utility in the country to work with community colleges to train line workers,” when the program was established in early 2001, she said.

The reasons for such are simple demographics. Union officials say the average age of the nation's utility workers is about 50.

“You're looking at a potential mass exodus over the next couple of years,” said John Fernandes, president of Local 457 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents Connecticut Light & Power employees.

Ellis Roberts guides the weight as a fellow trainee operates the crane at Connecticut Light's facility. Ellis Roberts guides the weight as a fellow trainee operates the crane at Connecticut Light's facility.
JESSICA HILL / AP Enlarge

The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a consortium of electric, natural gas, and nuclear utilities and their associations, said in a 2009 report that 42 percent of the industry's line workers would depart by 2015.

The survey found most employees retire after age 58, with 25 years of service. Because many utility jobs are physically demanding, it said, some employees choose jobs elsewhere in a utility or begin second careers well before the traditional retirement age of 65.

Collaborative efforts have been set up in 28 states among utilities, schools, unions, workforce development agencies, and others to find ways to develop the industry's labor force.

Detroit-based DTE Energy Corp. maintains its own linemen training and apprenticeship program at a facility in Westland, Mich., in cooperation with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents its workers in that field, spokesman John Austerberry said.

FirstEnergy has scheduled a preliminary orientation for its program from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 10 in the law enforcement building at Owens Community College.

Pay for Toledo Edison linemen generally begins at $40,000 to $50,000, with additional opportunities available.

Since it began, FirstEnergy's program has graduated 230 linemen, including 64 through Owens Community College.

The Connecticut training program teaches students about gas and electric utilities, alternative energy, and upgraded electricity systems known as the “smart grid.”

The program also prepares trainees for an industry employment test and commercial driver's license.

Ms. Duguay, of Wolcott, R.I., said she learned of it from the Job Corps and seized on it because she knows of the need for utility line workers, for whom annual pay is about $56,000 nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At a recent session at a Connecticut Light & Power training yard in Berlin, Ms. Duguay was in the cab of a crane, learning to lift and move a 1,500-pound block as if it were a paperweight.

She's set her sights on a career beyond line work, but at her recent training, she learned to navigate a forklift in reverse while trying to leave traffic cones untouched.

“I've cleaned my own gutters,” she said. “I don't mind heights. I don't mind physical work.”

She said she wants to pursue a career as an electrical designer, which involves planning the electrical use of a building, rather than being a line worker.

Right now, however, she needs the training to find entry-level work.



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