Learning the Line Life
The educational journey to becoming a lineman
An Oklahoma Electric Cooperative crew from left to right: Clint Yeary, apprentice lineman; Andy Bills, journeyman lineman; Tanner Nelson, apprentice lineman; Chris Croslin, overhead construction foreman; Jacob McFarland, apprentice lineman. Photo by James Pratt
Wayne Bray, 36, cherishes life in rural Oklahoma. Born and raised in Stigler, a town of 2,750 residents in the eastern part of the state, Bray is happy to stick close to home. Upon graduating from Stigler High School, Bray stayed busy building houses in the area, but as the years passed, he aspired for a more stable career with good benefits. The only catch: he wanted to stay near his hometown.
“In a small town, you don’t find that many good jobs,” Bray said. “When I saw that Cookson Hills Electric Cooperative had an opening for a warehouseman, I jumped at the opportunity. I grew up here, and I knew a career at the co-op would be stable; plus, the family-oriented environment was important to me.”
Bray was hired at Cookson Hills Electric Cooperative (CHEC) in June 2016. As a warehouseman, his responsibilities included taking warehouse inventory, stocking the warehouse and keeping it clean and organized. At times, Bray would go to the field with line crews to observe their work and help where he could. This exposure to linework was what Bray needed to understand his calling. When he saw the dynamics of linework first-hand, he knew it was meant for him.
Cookson Hills Apprentice Lineman Wayne Bray | Photo by James Pratt
“This is a hands-on job with lots to learn; it changes every day and it never gets old,” Bray said. “I like the physical component it brings, but most importantly, I enjoy the brotherhood linemen share. We are always looking out for each other.”
Two years after the start of his employment with CHEC, Bray moved up to the lineman program at the co-op. He took on the position of apprentice lineman in July 2018. With nearly a year of experience under this belt, Bray has no doubt life on the lines is where he wants to be.
Blossoming Opportunities Ahead
Nationwide, roughly 121,000 lineworkers work around the clock to keep more than 327 million Americans connected to energy. Industry reports indicate line crews across the country are aging, and it is essential to groom their replacements. The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports demand for linemen is expected to grow 14% by 2026. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), electric co-ops have the youngest line workforce, with only 25% of employees over the age of 53. Investor-owned utilities have the oldest, with 35% over age 53; for municipal utilities, 12% are under the age of 32. In a field ripe with long careers and leadership and advancement opportunities, Bray is in it for the long haul.
Oklahoma Electric Cooperative crew | Photo by James Pratt
The Apprenticeship Journey
In the educational journey to becoming a proficient lineman, the entry-level position is that of an apprentice lineman. On average, it takes approximately four years for an apprentice lineman to progress to journeyman lineman level, which signifies competence in leading installation, maintenance, and repair of electric power systems. The training and education of the line trade has evolved significantly over the years. Bray’s home co-op, CHEC, utilizes the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives’ (OAEC) training classes which uses curriculum from Northwest Lineman College (NLC), an industry-leading educational institution. NLC offers pre-apprentice programs at four campuses to prepare men and women for entry level jobs in the electrical, gas and telecommunications industry. NLC also offers subsequent training such as apprenticeship in distribution linework that Bray is pursuing in order to achieve a journeyman level lineman position.
Linemen pursuing the NLC apprentice program at their place of employment will work through four learning modules; each module comes in a sizable binder and contains 10 sections per module. The apprentice can pace him or herself through studying the sections. The student will be required to successfully complete a closed-book evaluation of each section, per the training department’s procedure to evaluate knowledge of the material. Tests are administered at the lineman’s place of employment and the student is monitored by a supervisor. Tests are then passed on to NLC for grading. The curriculum is designed to progress in depth and complexity with each module. Bray has completed Module 1 and is on his way to completing Module 2.
“I’m pleased with the NLC materials,” Bray said. “The curriculum provides good understanding of the roots of the industry and it is very safety oriented. The content is well organized, and I like the graphics and visual aids.”
According to Derec Janaway, OAEC director of safety and loss control, the NLC apprenticeship program—coupled with on-the-job-training and the safety schools provided by OAEC—provides Bray with a well-rounded, professional path to his education, fully equipping him for a rewarding line work career.
With 125 Oklahoma co-op linemen from 22 out of 27 distribution co-ops using NLC curriculum, Janaway encourages Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives to pursue NLC as the industry training standard.
“While there are other training opportunities available, there’s an advantage for our co-ops to stay with the same formal training,” Janaway said. “With equivalent training, electric cooperatives in Oklahoma will have the same strong foundation upon which we can build. We can enhance it with statewide schools and trainings offered by OAEC. It’s a win-win.”
Line Trade Develops Leaders
Chris Croslin, 34, graduated from Noble High School in 2003 and grew up on Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) lines. In 2004, he joined the U.S. military serving in the U.S. Army Reserve. A few years later, Croslin found himself looking for a solid civilian career.
“I had a brother-in-law who worked at OEC as an engineer, and I knew a lot of good people who worked at the co-op,” Croslin said. “I always liked working outside and with my hands. I knew a career in the line trade would keep me on my toes, and I would enjoy the camaraderie it brings.”
Croslin began his career at OEC in 2007 as a groundman in the right-of-way department. In the electric utility field, a groundman position entails assisting line crews by working on the ground, handing tools and heavy materials to workers, among other ground duties. In 2012, Croslin began the NLC apprentice training. He recalls climbing poles with “free climbing” techniques, but the NLC and statewide training introduced the fall restraint system, which prevents linemen from falling and accessing potential hazards.
“I have already been able to observe how the industry changes over time,” Croslin said. “I completed the apprentice training with Northwest Lineman College and enjoyed the four-year progression to journeyman lineman. NLC does a good job creating a foundation for linemen to be successful.”
Today, Croslin serves as overhead construction foreman and has apprentice linemen on his crew going through NLC training.
“We have the best linemen. As a foreman, my main task is to point them in the right direction and they know exactly what to do. We have a young group of linemen going through NLC training right now. I know they’re receiving a quality education and will be set for success,” he said.
Beyond his deep respect for his lineworkers, Croslin is grateful for the supportive, family atmosphere he has encountered at OEC. Through the years, Croslin has continued to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve as a drill sergeant. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2009 and in 2014 he was named Drill Sergeant of the Year, after going through an intense year of competition with other drill sergeants from across the nation.
“OEC has supported me 100% in my military service,” Croslin said. “My supervisors and crews have shown me nothing but support. The people of this company are amazing, and I’m thankful for them.”
When it comes to line work, Croslin said, “Brotherhood is at the top.” He appreciates the dynamics the job brings and the fulfillment of empowering local communities.
The same sentiment is found throughout the line trade industry. Don Harbuck, senior vice president of customer success for NLC and former lineman, puts it simply: “You work long hours in the line work field and in difficult situations. The feeling that you get when people’s power is back on... When you look at the dark house and see the smiling faces of children and women when the lights come on, making a house warm, it gives you a great deal of pride because you’re helping people with a daily necessity. It’s as essential as breathing today.”
Co-op linemen keep the lights on in their communities. It may be Stigler; it may be Noble; or it may be the hundreds of small communities in Oklahoma’s 77 counties or across rural America. With good training and a collaborative work atmosphere, co-op linemen are set for fulfilling careers.