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Idaho-based electric lineworkers college expands to Texas

Students train on power poles at the Northwest Lineman College in Kuna. (Photo by Northwest Lineman College)

Talk about major transmission line plans has Mike Hennessey, president of campus operations for Northwest Lineman College, in Kuna, feeling good about being in the electric transmission business.

The U.S. Department of Energy predicts the country will need almost 60,000 miles of distribution line to accommodate all the renewable and traditional energy projects planned to accommodate the country’s growing energy needs, he said. Meanwhile, much of the transmission infrastructure in use today is 50 to 80 years old.

“I compare the time we’re in right now to the time they built the national highway system,” Hennessey said.

A prospective shortage of workers is good news for NLC, which was founded in 1991 by three former linemen and now serves 2,500 students in a variety of programs.

The school, owned by a half-dozen principals who work on-site, has about 1,600 students in its lineworker certification program. It serves hundreds more in its apprentice-level and journey-level electric worker programs at companies around the country. Hennessey said NLC is the largest lineworker training school in the country. Along with its Meridian headquarters, the school has a campus in Oroville, Calif., and this fall, with the help of a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, it opened a new school in Denton, Texas. In July, NLC also received a $750,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant from the DOE for workforce training.

Along with its campus-based programs, NLC provides the academic curricula for companies to run apprenticeships for its graduates. After their apprenticeships, the lineworkers receive certificates from the Department of Labor. The school itself is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.

NLC’s instructors train utility workers around the world, Hennessey said. They helped set up a lineman school in Afghanistan in 2008 and recently erected power poles in Hawaii to train workers.

The future seems bright for utility educators. Many lineworkers are expected to retire in the next few years, a problem in an industry that relies on apprenticeships and on-the-job training. The DOE predicts a shortage of 20 percent in the next few years.

The American Public Power Association has been trying to recruit lineworkers to the field for years, said Michael Hyland, senior vice president of engineering. The group promotes the field to veterans and holds promotional events around the country. He said the lineworker shortage has temporarily eased because unemployed construction workers are entering the field.

“[But,] we haven’t attracted a lot of young folks in this line of work,” Hyland said. “How do you get a younger high school or college-age person to enjoy inside and outside electrical work and line work?”

Trainees in NLC’s electrical lineworker program spend four months on campus before an apprenticeship that can last four to eight years. For 80 percent of their class time, they’re high up on the 200 power poles set up behind the classroom building in Meridian.

That four months costs $10,075, a steep price when lineworker programs are available nationwide at community colleges and technical schools. The two-year electrical lineworker associate’s degree program at Austin Community College costs $4,150 for students who live within the taxing district, said Vidal Almanza, who works for the Austin program.

But Leanne Whitney, vice president of business operations for NLC, said many lineworkers prefer the four-month length of the NLC program.

“If you look at the return on investment, it’s an incredible bargain,” Whitney said.

The NLC catalog says typical first-year apprentices earn $50,000 a year. “They can immediately get employed and they’re going to have more earning power than many bachelor-degree students.”

NLC takes most comers. Anyone with a high school diploma or GED is eligible. The school is trying to attract more women; only one or two go through the program each year, Drew said.

Prospective lineworkers need to enjoy working outdoors, and probably shouldn’t mind traveling. They’ll certainly spend a lot of time 40 to 100 feet in the air on poles that sway.

“Typically students that really, truly, have a fear of heights don’t ever enroll,” King said.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.