Linemen head into danger to ensure public safety, and some believe they deserve recognition as first responders.
Storms, hurricanes, vehicle crashes, and fires are life-threatening events, and linemen often are the first to respond in adverse conditions to deenergize power lines and make an accident scene safe for firefighters, police, and paramedics to do their jobs.
Linemen are first responders’ heroes.
They are part of an elite group—less than 1 percent of the population are line installers and repairers—who climb poles and work with thousands of volts of electricity high atop power lines, often in extreme outdoor conditions, in an effort to keep electricity flowing to homes, businesses, hospitals, traffic lights, and other facilities.
Many people give little thought to the work linemen do or the hazards they face. It’s not until there’s a loss of electricity, internet service, cable television, and video games for the kids that people start thinking about their power company.
“Their work is highly complex and dangerous,” says Al Minner, city manager for Leesburg, which operates its own electric department. “They are highly trained and very technical people, and for the most part, their work generally goes unnoticed. But, when the storms come, they are the last ones to take shelter and the first ones out after an event to make sure energy is restored. I cannot brag enough on our linemen and what a great job they do for our community.”
Linemen on the job
Born and raised in Eustis, Cody Ellis, 30, lives in Mount Plymouth and has worked as a lineman for Duke Energy in Apopka for the past seven years. He spoke to more than 120 Lake and Sumter counties high school students about his profession during the recent National Line Workers Appreciation Day hosted at the Sumterville campus of Lake-Sumter State College.
That’s the site of the Energy Utility Institute, where an overhead pole line and underground electrical power systems operations and maintenance are available for LSSC students to gain a wide range of knowledge and functional skills to work in the electric utility industry. Duke Energy, SECO Energy, and the city of Leesburg are partners in the training program.
“When I came through the program, I didn’t know a whole lot about the industry. It opened my eyes. I had to learn how to climb and to troubleshoot,” Cody says, calling his profession “a lifestyle” and an opportunity to make a six-figure income without a four-year degree.
“We are out there making it safe so the cops and firemen can get through the roads and make sure the wires are dead. Cars hit poles almost every day, and the first responders won’t help you until we make sure it’s safe for them to go in,” he says, adding linemen can average 500 to 1,000 hours in overtime a year, depending on how many service calls they answer.
“We have to maintain 40 percent of the calls. Four out of 10 calls we have to answer per contract,” adds Cody, who grew up hunting and fishing, and relishes being able to work outdoors.
He will be making his fourth trip to the International Lineman’s Rodeo Oct. 18-19 in Bonner Springs, Kansas, with Chase Rich and Tim West as part of the three-member Duke Energy linemen team representing the Sunshine State. Cody missed attending two other rodeos because of hurricanes.
“Our team won this year for Florida, so we are headed back to Kansas again. It’s a good time, fun, and a big family event,” Cody says.
The rodeo will feature 300 apprentices and 200 linemen teams from all over the world performing traditional lineman tasks and skills as they compete in the “hurt man rescue,” a pole climb based on speed, and two mystery events.
“In the speed climb, there is a little bucket with an egg in it, and you climb a 40-foot pole, hang the bucket, put the egg in your mouth, and climb back down as fast as you can without cracking the egg,” Cody says. “We don’t know the mystery events until we show up.”
While winning competitions is a thrill, taking pride in the job is his first priority.
“There’s a hard work ethic in this field and it teaches you to take pride in the trade and take pride in your work,” he says. “I try to pass that on to the guys I train.”
Cody is appreciative of public support during hurricanes and power outages.
“Sometimes kids run up and give us water, soda, and little things that they make and sign, and that really means a lot to us,” he says.
Lineman Brant Duke, 22, of Leesburg, works for the city of Leesburg Utilities. He was taking a math class at Lake-Sumter State College and was unsure what he wanted to do with his life.
“I saw this program, and I knew I liked to work outside and work with my hands. I decided to give it a shot, and I fell in love with it,” says Brant, who was praised by his instructors for his work ethic, willingness to learn, and his quick ability to climb poles.
“The city of Leesburg Utilities is one of the best utilities out there,” he says. “They give you good balance of plenty of work and also give you time to enjoy what your money can buy you. It’s an excellent place to work.”
Brant was working for Leesburg during Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and repaired downed poles. He also went to South Carolina to restore power after Hurricane Florence in September 2018 and found residents were appreciative.
“When we were riding through town, we had a convoy of utility trucks, and we were getting a lot of waves,” he says.
A lineman for 20 years, Chad Duncan, 47, of Ocklawaha, works for Duke Energy, covering Highway 40 in Ocala down to Highway 50 in Clermont, “from one side of the state to the other.”
Being a lineman is in his blood.
“My whole family is in the electrical business; my brother also works for Duke, and my father works for Sumter Electric,” he says. “The time that really stands out is the 2004 hurricanes for how long we worked, and everything was a stumbling block. We worked 16-hour days for what seemed like a month straight.”
Restoring power after consecutive hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne was tedious.
“It can be a real time-consuming job with a lot of time away from your family,” Chad says of the drawbacks, along with working in the hot summer heat.
However, Chad is quick to say he enjoys his work.
“Everything is always changing so you’re learning something new all the time,” he says. “It’s a good career and a pretty lucrative living. You’re not going to get rich, but you’re not going to be broke, either.”
A lineman’s pay
The median annual wage for electrical power-line installers and repairers in May 2018 was $70,910, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“I tell the students if you are a journeyman lineman in this world today and if you’re not making six figures then you don’t want to,” says Tim Sullivan, a Villages resident and lead instructor of the LSSC energy programs at the Sumterville campus. “One of the ways you get there is answering the phone when it rings.”
Tim was an upstate New York lineman for 25 years and traveled around the country restoring power, often after ice storms. He later became the boss and had 130 linemen under his command in Syracuse, New York, before retiring from National Grid.
“Once you get the job in your bloodstream, it’s not just a job, it’s a life,” he says.
Tim is pleased to have seen 120 students gain jobs with utilities after going through the LSSC program to learn about transformers, overhead construction, underground systems, troubleshooting, climbing poles, and a heavy course on safety. The college hopes to add a commercial driver’s license program by fall to complement the line program.
“The industry is so in need of workers,” Tim says of replacing an aging workforce.
The overall employment of line installers and repairers is projected to grow 8 percent through 2026. Job opportunities are best for those with good technical and mechanical skills.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
He believes athletic young men in good shape are ideal candidates, even though a 46-year-old is currently going through the LSSC program, and a 42-year-old was hired a few years ago.
“It’s not age as much as ability,” Tim adds of students hired by city- or government-owned utilities, cooperatives, and investor-owned utilities.
“Companies do a skills test. Most people who come through our program pass the skills test easily. We train them well,” Tim says. “A properly trained lineman can control hazards, which doesn’t make it dangerous, in my opinion. If you follow the rules and do what you are trained to do, it’s quite a safe profession.”
Bob Seigworth, of Summerfield, director and program manager of energy technology programs at LSSC, saw 17 students graduate May 3 from his engineering technology substation/relay program. Twelve had jobs and the others were sending out résumés.
“Working for utilities is a good deal. It’s not an easy life, but it’s a good life and a brotherhood,” Bob says. “The beauty of our programs is they are less than $10,000. So, a two-year degree in either line or substation relay is less than $10,000 for tuition, books, lab, and fees, and they can come out and get an entry-level job at $40,000 to $50,000, and I’ve had some students go to work for $62,000 right out of school.”
LSSC counsels students on which energy-related career is best for them.
“Typically, if you are an outdoorsy person and enjoy being outside, working with your hands, working with heavy equipment, working in a team environment, then the line program would be fantastic for you,” Bob says. “The engineering technology substation/relay program is a completely different discipline. If you’re good with math, good with computers, and you enjoy new technology, then that program would be good for you.”
Bob worked for Duke Energy for 37 years before he retired in October 2014 and began teaching at LSSC.
“One thing that gives me great joy is when my student gets that dream job with a utility and goes to work and has the opportunities that I had,” he says. “We are in our third cohort of students in engineering, and that is a good feeling knowing they have jobs to go to, and that’s really what our program is based on—students getting jobs.”
The LSSC instructors say electrical utilities provide opportunities and job security.
“It’s a lifestyle, and once you start doing it, it’s all you want to do,” says Leo Taylor, of Ocoee, who is a part-time instructor at LSSC.
Leo retired from the Orlando Utilities Commission after 30 years, and he remembers two unforgettable times in his career. The first was working in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the second was saving a girl’s prom.
“Hurricane Andrew was the biggest and most devastation I have seen anywhere. The big challenge was trying to get power back on for people,” Leo says. “And I did have one time when a transformer just went out, and there wasn’t a storm or anything, but we went out to fix it. It was prom night for the local high school, and a lady was trying to get her daughter ready for the prom and needed to run a hair dryer.”
The mother and daughter were distraught to learn the power outage would last a couple more hours.
“I broke one of the rules of the company and cranked up a generator and ran an extension cord so she could run that dryer and get her daughter’s hair fixed for prom,” Leo says, grinning.
“He saved the day,” Bob adds.
Just like any first responder would do.