Marquette, Mich.--The power outages in the aftermath of super storm Sandy and the subsequent Nor’easter snowstorm along the east coast only emphasize that it's critical for the United States to have trained electrical line and power grid technicians.
“There are jobs here and across the nation available for line and power technicians, and big storms like Sandy highlight the need for an adequate amount of people qualified to maintain and work the country’s power grid," said Daryl Kobie, head of Northern Michigan University's technology and occupational sciences department. "However, it’s a struggle to get enough students to fill all of the training availability for these professions."
The average starting salary for an electrical line or power technician is about $54,290 per year or $26.10 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2012 Occupational Jobs Handbook (www.bls.gov).
NMU has offered an electrical line technician program in conjunction with the Lake Superior Community Partnership and the Midwest Skills Development Center since 2004. The degree is a 31-credit diploma that takes two semesters to complete. NMU accepts 40 students into each cohort.
“The line tech program was originally started because U.P. and northern Wisconsin power companies had a critical need for trained technicians and they simply couldn’t fill their vacant positions. Today, students can complete the line tech program in a year, walk out of the door almost guaranteed they will be able to find a job. Some areas of the country have a higher need than others, but there are jobs,” Kobie said.
Northern began its power technician program in 2009. While line technicians do most of their work on the electrical poles, power tech graduates build and maintain the power substations, said Mike Rudisill, head of NMU’s engineering technology department. Students in this program at Northern train on a mock substation located on campus. NMU can accept up to 24 students into each year’s cohort and offers scholarships both years of this two-year academic program.
Ironically, Rudisill said that despite the significant job opportunities and scholarship availability, recruiting students into the line and power tech programs has been challenging.
“We’ve had many great students in these programs who are now working in the field, but the number of graduates certainly hasn’t met the job demand. I think a lot of young people simply don’t know how the power system works, so they aren’t aware of the local, regional and national employment opportunities.”
According to Rudisill, to be successful in the electrical line and power tech programs and jobs, a person should have solid basic mathematics and science skills, like learning in a hands-on environment, feel comfortable working with computers and advanced test equipment. Those looking to become line technicians should also like working outdoors, sometimes in extreme weather conditions, and obviously must not have a fear of heights.
“There is a lot of conversation about what’s going to happen to the country’s power system in the future. Obviously alternative energies will have a big impact over time, but those who understand today’s U.S. power grid—how it works and how it could work—will be in demand for a long, long time,” Rudisill said.