Looking for a job? How about working way up in the air, in all kinds of weather, with thousands of volts of electricity?
Working on high voltage lines pays well and doesn’t require a degree, but electric utilities are hard-pressed to replace retiring linemen.
If you want to learn about the dedication and character needed to be a lineman, look no further than a place with a super-abundance of line workers: the International Lineman’s Rodeo.
Each year, the best lineman from across the country test their skills in a field in Kansas. Picture a forest of closely spaced utility poles — almost like a giant hair brush — with hundreds of burly men, in hard hats and heavy boots with spikes, working furiously.
Throw in lots of tools and American flags and you begin to imagine an annual competition some call a “testosterone vortex.”
“The International Lineman’s Rodeo is the Super Bowl of rodeo for linemen,” says Martin Putnam, an organizer and former champion lineman.
Sporting a sharp flattop, he says the very top workers qualify to compete here amidst the best in a macho, but exacting, field.
“They’re kinda cowboys. Here’s guys that are handling 7,200 volts every day. It’s a different deal,” Putnam says.
Long hours fixing lines are more common than not, especially after hurricanes, ice storms and tornadoes. Still, many lineman say that they wouldn’t do anything else, despite the dangers that veterans like Danny Haithcock know well.
“Matter of fact, I lost my older brother, to electrical contact in ’91. And, I know a lot of other guys, arms burnt off, legs burnt off, of course, lost their life as well. But, that doesn’t happen that often anymore,” Haithcock says.
He’s been on the job for 28 years. That’s not uncommon. About a third of lineman working today will retire in the next decade, a serious issue for the utility industry.
‘A Certain Breed Of Cat’
This year’s competition will happen against the backdrop of a pending disaster for utilities companies. They face an acute shortage of line workers, as employees who were forced to put off retirement during the recession head for the exits. Trade groups are trying to figure out how to entice millennials into the field.
“Kids don’t like it. It’s hard to find young men and women to do this,” Putnam says.
Line work pays well — more than $40 an hour with experience — around Kansas City. But Putnam says there is still a shortage.
“Nobody wants to climb poles, everyone’s afraid of electricity. You work at night, you work in the storms. It takes a certain breed of cat. I mean, heck, you can’t get a kid to lick a stamp, much less climb a pole,” Putnam says.
The utility industry confronted this problem about a decade ago, when it set up the Center for Energy Workforce Development, or CEWD.
“When we started, we were looking at about half the workforce leaving in five years,” Anne Randazzo, director of CEWD, says.
A terrifying prospect, because it takes almost five years to fully train a line worker.
Randazzo says the recession delayed the problem, because baby boomers put off retirement. In the meantime, she says the industry has recruited thousands of replacement line workers by promoting line work in high schools and even elementary schools, producing documentaries and setting up dozens of training programs in the last few years.
The industry is also looking for more women, a rarity in a field with only about one woman for every hundred men.
“Women just don’t know about the opportunity, and the money they can make, if they like working outside. I look for farm girls. They like working outside, know what their responsibilities are,” Susan Blaser, director of a program at a junior college in Kansas City, Missouri, says. Wearing a pink hard hat, Blaser is a former line worker herself.
And for line work, you have to give up not only comfort on the job, but something almost vital to lots of people: a cell phone.
“Distractions lead to accidents. Phones are accidents, unfortunately,” Blaser says.
Careful, Hearty And Crazy
Despite the odds, retiring linemen were more than matched by new recruits last year, like 33-year-old Jeremy Kunz.
“I like a challenge, and what’s more challenging than something that’s real dangerous?” Kunz says.
A challenge like messing with something so powerful it can kill you, high up on a pole, in terrible weather?
“That’s right! Don’t get much worse than that!” Kunz says.
People with the special mix of careful, hearty and crazy it takes to be a line worker aren’t getting any easier to find. Fortunately, the utilities are getting better at finding them.