Working On the Lines

Posted: April 1, 2021 at 4:54 pm

Thank a Lineworker

By Lori Tobias

Whether observed April 12, April 18 or July 10—all dates designated as Lineworker Appreciation Day—there’s no doubt lineworkers everywhere deserve recognition. In storms, wildfires and other disasters, they are tasked with making our lives whole again.

“Everything works off power, manufacturing, electricity—all of it,” says Donnie Colston, director of utilities for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “It’s up to dedicated linemen to restore it as quickly as possible. It’s a fulfilling job. A lineman can say, ‘I’ve done something to help.’ The power comes back on and the customer says, ‘Thank you.’”

Journeyman Lineman Billy Fullmer can’t think of much he would rather do for a living than linework. It is challenging, exacting and every day is different. But there was a time he wondered if he had made a mistake.

Journeyman Lineman Billy Fullmer climbs a pole to change out a contract light on Raft River Electric lines. PHOTO BY JERAMY LOGUE
Journeyman Lineman Billy Fullmer climbs a pole to change out a contract light on Raft River Electric lines. PHOTO BY JERAMY LOGUE

Becoming a journeyman lineman requires an apprenticeship involving hundreds of hours of supervised work, often in unpleasant—if not miserable—conditions. Only the most dedicated earn a journeyman’s ticket. But the rewards are great, and there are numerous paths to that goal.

“The main thing that made me question being a lineman was height,” says Billy, a journeyman for Raft River Rural Electric Cooperative Inc. in Malta, Idaho.

He refers specifically to a certain 105-foot pole—and so many others like it.

“With every step, you start swaying,” recalls Billy, a journeyman of 3 1/2 years. “As you get momentum built up, you start swaying, sometimes 4 feet in each direction. They’re pretty flexible. That was the one time that I was thinking, ‘I don’t know about this career.’”

Today, with many such challenges behind him, Billy says, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

Billy attended Northwest Lineman’s College—one of numerous private schools throughout the country that prepares students for linework. Another option is VOLTA, operated by the Northwest Line Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee.

Private schools do not offer apprenticeships, but graduating students seeking an entry-level ticket are considered to have a head start on candidates who have not had that education or other work in the field.

Ben Feliz, emergency coordination manager with Clark Public Utilities in Vancouver, Washington, favors line colleges not only for the training, but to weed out those who may not understand the requirements of the trade.

“If someone puts out the effort and money to go to the college, they’ve got skin in the game,” says Ben, whose son is a line college graduate and now a journeyman. “They’ve made the commitment. If you just compare someone who comes off the street you don’t know to someone who has completed an education, they have a head start.”

Chad Black, general manager of Raft River Electric, also favors line school—in part because it gives the candidate an overview of what the work is like. For some, that’s not an encouraging look, he says.

“They figure out they are not that interested in it,” Chad says. “It’s demanding. You’re in foul weather and working holidays. I used to be an advocate of just going out and getting a job with a contractor, but I think the line college really gives them an advantage. If nothing else, it solidifies their commitment to the trade.”

Aside from line school, those pursuing a career in linework might hire on at a utility or construction company, which generally sends its apprentices through a program, such as the JATC, for training.

In the Pacific Northwest, training includes online and in-person classes, as well as three sessions of hands-on training at Camp Rilea in Warrenton, Oregon, where apprentices practice basic skills such as climbing, distribution, transmission hot sticking, and safety protocols and guidelines.

Camp Rilea sessions span 10 days, with room and board provided. Apprentices earn raises as they progress through the program. Generally, they are required to complete about 7,000 hours of training. Once an apprentice completes the training, they take a test to earn their journeyman ticket.

A journeyman can earn about $54 an hour under the Northwest Line agreement, according to Claudia Repman, administrative operations manager with the NW Line JATC. With benefits and overtime, earnings quickly add up.

But the job isn’t for everyone.

“The reason you become a lineman is because you like the trade, you like the work,” Ben says. “It’s a rewarding career. There’s nothing more valuable than turning someone’s power on and reaping the reward from that.”

Bo Green, now a journeyman lineman in Reedsport, Oregon, with Central Lincoln PUD, got into the trade via an apprenticeship through JATC.

Originally from Idaho, Bo was working as a groundman on a construction job in Texas when he flew to Portland to interview with JATC. He made the cut and has been a journeyman for six years.

For those set on a career in the trade, Bo encourages persistence and a good attitude.

“It’s kind of tough to get your foot in the door,” he says, “but it’s also hard to find guys nowadays that have a good work ethic and can be taught. A lot of the guys, they see the money that can be made. That draws a lot of people to it. But you have to be tough—mentally strong. You miss the kids’ birthdays, you miss Christmas. That’s hard. There’s a reason we love it, too. We provide for our families. Our families have never gone without. But you’ve got to have grit.”

Journeyman Lineman Dan Feliz goes horizontal as he and fellow crew members complete a job for a line construction contractor in Oregon. PHOTO BY JUDE JOLMA
Journeyman Lineman Dan Feliz goes horizontal as he and fellow crew members complete a job for a line construction contractor in Oregon. PHOTO BY JUDE JOLMA