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Tuesday, 01 August 2006 18:14

When is a Lineman a Lineman?

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This feature's title is not a rhetorical question. There really should be an answer-a definitive, widely accepted answer we could all give quickly and consistently. There isn't and we can't, though we try with great confidence. When one of us comes up with something that sounds pretty good, another one of us disagrees.
The lack of standards in our industry about who a lineman is and what he does plagues us in hiring, training, work assignments, and especially when we try to manage contract workers or other utility personnel who have been borrowed to help restore power after a storm. It is singularly odd in our industry that such an important title could be so ambiguous.
The U.S. Department of Labor, in its May 2005 Occupational Employment Statistics, said there were 131,640 "Electrical Powerline Installers and Repairers" (SOC Code 499051) employed by utilities and contractors in the nation at that time. How many linemen? They don't know either. Same problem we have. What is a lineman? Of course, Uncle Sam successfully de-genderized its occupational classifications anyway, so the title of "Lineman" went the way of "Postman" some time ago.
That's okay, I guess. I'll settle for line mechanic, if you will. There goes the clarity, though. Who wants to call themselves "Line Mechanic" and confuse everyone, when they could just say "Lineman" and leave a clear picture of what they do?
The reason we don't have a clear picture is because we know too much. We each have biased expectations on what a lineman should know and be able to do.
As Director of Training for a large powerline contractor for ten years, I was constantly faced with the problem of worker classification. We hired more than 600 lineworkers a year, and I'll be darned if they didn't all come in claiming to be journeyman linemen, expecting top pay. They weren't.
Our foremen told me they could tell within an hour, on-the-job, whether the new hire was a journeyman lineman or not. "How?" I would ask. "Easy," they would reply. "Just watch how they _____." You fill in the blank, because it was always different. "But," I would rebut, "what if they are poor at _____, but good at _____. Wouldn't that still qualify them as a lineman?" "No way," they would say, "you hafta _____, to be a lineman." Two foremen would stand right there contradicting each other on the 'hafta _____." It was kind of like arguing night and day. I think they just liked to argue.
I wish now I had made a list of all those blanks filled in, because maybe if you add all of them up, you have your definition of a journey-level line mechanic (or whatever).
Then, you have the whole issue of lineman apprentices. Still confusing? Possibly less so, because the U. S. Department of Labor has some guidelines for us on "apprenticeable occupations" (see Table 1). The DOL also goes on to recommend guideline standards for registered apprenticeship programs (see Table 2).
Okay. Good. But then our eyes naturally stop on "a schedule of work processes in which the apprentice is to receive training and experience on the job." I searched the DOL web site in vain trying to find "a schedule of work processes" for electrical powerline installers and repairers. It's not there.
I've been in the industry long enough to see that we do have a generally accepted standard of four years, or 8,000 hours, as a typical period to apprentice as a lineman. I do, however, know some very well respected electric utilities that differ with the four year assumption: one says three years is plenty; another says seven years is a minimum. Who is right?
It's difficult to say, isn't it? We haven't even agreed on what they are supposed to do in their apprenticeship. We're back to that "schedule of work processes" again. Fundamentally, in my role as Director of Training for 2,000 lineworkers, that was the starting point for me as well.
Now, as Executive Director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (ISPC), I am on a mission: I want to know when a lineman is a lineman. And specifically I'm talking about a powerline worker at a journeyman level. Build it a piece at a time, if you want: Apprentice Level I, II, III, IV, but help me get to that definition of a lineman practicing his or her trade at a journey worker level. Also, throw in there how long it should take to become a lineman.
I'm gathering evidence for our panel discussion at the Incident Prevention Hands-on-Safety Conference in California this October. Sign in at and put in your two cents worth. Also, let's vote on a name. I've used several throughout this article. What should linemen be called in the 21st Century?  ip

Ronald J. Schenk has served as ISPC Executive Director since 2004. From 1994-2004 he was the Director of Training for Red Simpson, Inc., a top five powerline contractor. From 1990-1994, Schenk served as Director of Training at Universal Electric Construction and from 1984-1990 was a Senior Consultant and Trainer, FMI Management Consultants. Schenk holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist (COSS).

Read 18461 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 18:18
Ronald J. Schenk, CUSP

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