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Posted on June 22, 2012

Oakland: Aspiring Utility Workers Climb to New Heights

By David Kligman

PowerPathway pole climbing class

Dennis Hillman, 27, of Concord, awaits the word to climb a power pole prior to his graduation from a pole-climbing course at PG&E’s Oakport Service Center. (Photos by David Kligman.)

OAKLAND—For the past three weeks, a group of would-be utility workers was introduced to one of the most important skills needed for restoring electricity to customers—climbing power poles.

They graduated today (June 22) from PG&E’s first expanded pole-climbing course as part of its PowerPathway program, which trains the next generation of utility workers for high-demand positions at PG&E and other energy companies.

The class began with 21 students and ended with 19 graduates, all of them current students at Oakland’s Cypress Mandela Training Center and Workforce Institute, a division of San Jose/Evergreen Community College District. One dropped out of the pole-climbing class after receiving a job offer from PG&E while the other quit due to the aches and pains of pole climbing.

Some in the course are recent high school graduates while others, like Ricardo Rosas of Hayward, are unemployed and looking for new opportunities. As many of the students quickly learned, climbing a wooden power pole is a lot harder than it looks.

“When you’re actually up there it’s an eye opener,” said Rosas, who was laid off last October from his job as an industrial designer.

The instructors include a longtime PG&E employee, a line worker from San Jose and two retired line workers.

Safety vitally important

They stress safety above everything else.

“If they use the equipment properly and the proper techniques they’re not going to fall off the pole,” instructor Ray Atkinson said.

Spencer Greene

Spencer Greene, 19, of Santa Rosa, receives his graduation certificate and is congratulated by officials with PG&E and PowerPathway.

The free course, at the PG&E Oakport Service Center, began with several days of classroom instruction, followed by a gradual ascension of the 45-foot poles used specially for training. They began 6 feet up the poles, moved up to 15 feet, then 25 feet. They learn the importance of working in teams and using a hand line to send tools up the pole. And they’re taught how to install cross arms.

It’s more than just contending with the heights. It was also getting adjusted to the equipment, which includes a restraint called a buck squeeze, which chokes the pole and keeps the line worker from falling. They also must wear a leather shrug jacket that protects their arms and chest from splinters should they slam into a pole.

PG&E began the Power Pathway program several years ago by partnering with local community colleges, community-based organizations, the public workforce development system and unions to increase the talent pool of potential gas and electric utility workers. The utility is preparing to replace an estimated 40 percent of its workforce from retirement over the next five years.

“This first class is really a big milestone for us,” said Bill Harper, vice president of talent management and chief diversity officer. “It’s not an easy thing when you realize you have to prepare so many new employees.”

Nine identified for pre-apprentice line work

Of the graduates in the pole-climbing class, nine were identified as “tier 1,” the most likely candidates to become pre-apprentice line workers. Having gone through the course will help them greatly should they apply and be accepted to become a pre-apprentice line worker.

PowerPathway pole climbing class

Would-be utility workers demonstrate their skills at the end of the first PowerPathway course devoted solely to climbing power poles.

For the others, the course was still worthwhile. Some learned they simply didn’t have the desire to climb poles but plan to pursue other jobs at PG&E, including natural gas service workers, substation electricians and cable splicers.

Following a demonstration for family and guests, the students gathered in a portable classroom where they were handed certificates. Officials with PG&E and others gave brief remarks, including student James Vick.

“The other day we were joking around and talking about climbing and somebody said, ‘How does it feel to step into the wood?’ Vick recalled. “And somebody said, ‘It feels like the next 30 years of my life.’ I hope for a lot of us that could be true.”

Atkinson, the lead instructor, congratulated the students on their hard work and said he was proud of them.

“I’ve been doing what I do for 35 years,” he said. “I love what I do. Teaching you guys how to do what I do, that’s fun. While not all of you will go on to become a lineman someday, I would be proud after working with you for three weeks to work beside any one of you. You done good and I hope you get a job.”

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