Electric utilities of all business models, whether investor owned, municipal or cooperative, are undergoing a transition. This transition is partly driven by evolving business strategies toward better cost controls that result in efficiency. With the possibility of electric utilities forced through deregulation to enter the competitive market, utilities must seriously evaluate the traditional business model.
One attractive resource for cost effective restructuring has been efficiency in the labor pool. At the same time, utilities struggle with safety compliance standards from OSHA that demand improvements in training and documentation to meet the intent of the OSHA standard. That intent is to provide effective training. Why? Because training reduces accidents and minimizes risk.
PITFALLS OF TRADITIONAL METHODS
Linemen have traditionally been trained through apprenticeship. Apprenticeship has been and always will be an effective means to provide high skill training. The potential problem with the traditional apprenticeship is in the foundation of apprenticeship, on the job training. On the job trainers are not always up-to-date in technology and safety mandates. Smaller crews mean less rotation for apprentices, so they are exposed to fewer trainers. Those trainers are the key component to technology, method and procedure transfer. Trainers who apprenticed more than 10 years ago were not exposed to today's enhanced technology, efficiency and safety standards. As a result, a valuable, competent lineman may not necessarily be a good trainer in the face of today's need.
Two-man crews also mean that one of two workers is now the lead person, the decision-maker in method and procedure, the public representative and supervisor in safe work practice issues. Twenty years ago the utility need only depend on one in four or five members of the workforce to fill the need of lead person to ensure the utility's mission in safety, production and efficiency. Specialty crews are being disbanded in favor of more broadly trained and flexible linemen. Better training and retraining to enhance broad-based skills means a more flexible, efficient workforce. This drive toward better safety performance, enhanced decision-making skills and efficiency demands a new training paradigm.
COMBINING THEORY AND PRACTICE
A new program has been created in the community college system in Florida. The Associate Degree in Applied Science (AAS) in Electrical Distribution Technology has all the training of the traditional apprenticeship except energized training at higher voltages. In all other aspects the practical training is comparable, but with the AAS program comes more underlying technology exposure plus enhanced safety training. The general education portion provides other higher order decision-making, communications and problem-solving skills as well as math, computer and technical writing skills.
Because of the class scheduling of a traditional college program and the limited hot-work experience, the AAS program in itself is not a complete training tool toward journeyman status. The answer then is to combine the best of each training method, apprenticeship and the Applied Science in Electrical Distribution Technology program, creating a hybrid training paradigm. This new hybrid apprentice program takes advantage of a curriculum that has been constructed so that individual college courses can be taken as apprenticeship-related study skills. The end result is effective completion of registered apprenticeship and an accredited college degree.
ADVANTAGES OF UTILITY PARTNERING
Since all programs in a community college must be state approved, the curriculum is available for implementation by any community college in the state. A utility liaison, familiar with both the state's higher education system and utility technical training can coordinate local college training in every work location—even for larger service area utilities. A progressive utility will help to establish training resources across their service area. The utility will provide material support and the educational institution will provide the certification process to allow utility professionals to serve as faculty for the training.
In the long term, the utility can stimulate additional enhanced training courses in all of the apprenticable crafts such as power plant mechanics, instrument technicians, metering systems technicians, power plant electricians and so on.
The AAS degree in Electrical Distribution Technology has a second efficacy directly impacting the electric utility. If the program is open to the general public, the utility has a human resource toward new-hire employees with a reliable source of reference related to the candidate employee. If the utility works with the college, it has access to two years of first-hand evaluation of potential employees. In addition, the utility can be assured of the type of training, as well as input to the technology and practices used in candidate training and evaluation. Such access will dynamically improve the quality of the newly hired employee and serve to effectively reduce the turnover that results from poor skill-set matches.ip