Eastern Iowa utilities ramp up line mechanic recruiting
Retirements expected to create 40 percent turnover
George C. Ford
Line mechanics are electric utilities’ first responders.
They handle challenging and potentially dangerous work at the worst time and in the worst weather.
As the post-World War II baby boom generation retires, investor-owned utilities such as Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy in Cedar Rapids and rural electric co-ops such as Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) in Cedar Rapids are ramping up efforts to recruit and train line mechanics.
Electric utilities could lose as much as 40 percent of line mechanics to retirement or attrition by 2024, according to the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a Washington, D.C., not-for-profit consortium of electric natural gas and nuclear utilities.
The center’s 2015 report, Gaps in the Energy Workforce Pipeline, estimated utilities will need 22,000 replacement line mechanics by 2019 and another 9,000 between 2020 and 2024.
While the work can be challenging and the weather daunting, the median expected annual pay for a typical line mechanic in the United States is $64,301, excluding bonuses and benefits, according to salary.com. Line mechanics usually are represented by a union, most often the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Alliant operates an apprentice line mechanic training facility in Marshalltown. Oather Taylor, director of recruitment and training, said the company has a four-year apprenticeship program with a combination of classroom and field training.
Applicants are required to have previously completed a year of line school, typically at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon or Marshalltown Community College.
“We typically have about 75 individuals who walk through that rigorous four-year program,” Taylor said. “Every six months, they undergo tests to prove they are efficient in the techniques they have been trained to perform.
“These are physically demanding jobs. Through the years, with advancements in tools and technology, the rigorous aspects are continually being addressed.
“Obviously, safety is absolutely paramount and one of the reasons why the training is so rigorous. Folks are trained to use the tools and the practices to ensure that everyone finishes the day safely.”
Alliant has tapped armed services veterans as a potential recruiting source, Taylor said. The company has more than 250 veterans in different field positions.
“Veterans come with some of the skills and experience that we already use,” he said. “They come with a tremendous work ethic.”
While acknowledging that line mechanics have been a male-dominated position in the past, Taylor said the company has successfully recruited women as line mechanics. And now the utility industry realizes that it needs to shift from word-of-mouth recruiting to more proactive efforts, he added.
“We are focusing on middle schools, high school and colleges to spread the concept that the energy sector has great opportunities and careers for women,” Taylor said. “We have seen our efforts bear fruit, but there still is much work to be done.”
Taylor said first-year apprentice line mechanics at Alliant Energy generally can expect to earn $70,000 annually with salary, incentives and overtime.
“When they become a journeyman line mechanic, they will earn a fair amount more,” he said. “These are really good-paying jobs.”
Jim Dougherty, vice president of electric delivery for MidAmerican Energy, said the company has been preparing for line mechanic retirements for three or four years.
“I think we are right in the middle of it,” Dougherty said. “One of the keys is to recognize that it’s coming, and get out in front of it as best we can. Our front-line workers are probably where it’s the biggest issue to deal with.”
MidAmerican last month opened its Center for Excellence, a 28,000-square-foot facility in Des Moines to provide hands-on training for apprentice line mechanics.
“We will put an emphasis on a more robust training effort, which allows us to take the apprenticeship from a four-year to a three-year program,” Dougherty said. “We require them to come into our program with a year of line school.
“We are fortunate in this part of the country to have very high quality line schools within a three or so hours of Des Moines. We have a very healthy population of apprentices wanting jobs in Iowa.
“It’s not unusual for us to get between 50 an 60 applications for our open apprentice line mechanic jobs.”
The MidAmerican Energy apprenticeship program lasts two years and includes a mix of classroom instruction, lab work and field experience.
“One month out of every six months, an apprentice spends a solid four-week period at our Center for Excellence,” Dougherty said. “They spend the next five months out in the field. We think it’s a more comprehensive training opportunity, which allowed us to feel more comfortable shortening the apprenticeship program from four years to three years.”
As part of the program, the apprentices help build indoor and outdoor pole yards. They install the poles, learn how to climb them and work with live voltage lines.
MidAmerican expects two classes of apprentices to begin the program this year. Each class will hold between six to 12 students.
Dougherty said the company hopes to enroll three classes each year.
Dougherty said veterans often are hired as field supervisors because they have leadership skills that transfer to the corporate world. Right now, MidAmerican does not have any line mechanics who are women, Dougherty said.
An Iowa Energy Workforce Consortium has been formed by Alliant, MidAmerican, CIPCO, Iowa utility associations, the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
“Our goal as a consortium is to identify workforce gaps in the state’s utility industry and develop strategies and solutions to address those gaps,” said Memorea Schradar, human resources specialist at CIPCO. “The retirements are not just affecting the line mechanic workforce. We also are going to need engineers, technicians and power plant operators.”
Alliant and MidAmerican have recruited experienced line mechanics from contractors such as Michels Corp. of Brownsville, Wis.
“You have a ready-made workforce of line mechanics who travel all over,” Dougherty said. “We use them as contractors in large metropolitan areas like Des Moines where growth has been so astounding. The Cedar Rapids metro area is experiencing a lot of growth, and I’m sure Alliant is doing the same thing.
“A lot of apprentices that we’ve been getting have initially gone to work for those kinds of companies. They can make a lot of money, but it requires a lot of traveling.
“When they decide that they want to settle down and regularly sleep in their own bed, they apply for work at a local utility.”