Whats it like being a union lineman in 2021?
This is a guest article from Glen Sutherland a Journeyman Lineman out of IBEW Local 47 with 15+ Years Experience
First off, congratulations on taking interest in one of the most elite professions in the construction industry. Linemen are a rare breed and have one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Becoming a Journeyman Lineman takes pride, craftsmanship, a good attitude, and a strong work ethic. It can be a grueling yet rewarding process. You will have to make tough decisions and sacrifices along the way. You may have to work 7 days a week, 16+ hour days, for weeks, on storms, 24+ hour shifts on call outs, work in the extreme heat, freezing cold, rain, snow, sunshine, and deal with tough terrain, but in the end when you get that Journeyman Lineman ticket in your hands, you will open your world to opportunities and paths you never thought possible. So, if you think you still want to become a Lineman, let’s talk about the steps and paths to take.
How does lineman school work?
When it comes to line schools you have several options. The most common, cheapest, and convenient way is a line school at your nearest community college. These line schools will introduce you to the trade, teach you how to climb, get you familiar with the tools, and most importantly, help you get you your Class A CDL. You also have the option of going to one of the more recognized line schools like NLC (Northwest Lineman College) or SLTC (Southeast Lineman Training Center). While these schools cost more and may require you to travel to one of their locations, they are more recognized by apprenticeships, power companies, and contractors. Climbing gear and the tools that you need to perform the work are also included in the cost of these schools. Today, a line school and a Class A CDL is almost always required to get into any apprenticeship. So, after you complete line school, let’s talk about employment options.
How to get a lineman job?
To get started in linework, you have three paths to take. Those paths are, the IBEW union contractors, local power company (co-op or municipality), and non-union contractors. All three options will get you started in the trade, and each have their pros and cons.
Should I Join IBEW?
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is the union that has represented both inside and outside electrical workers since 1891. It was founded by a lineman named Henry Miller and represents roughly 750,000 men and women in the electrical industry. To get started in the IBEW you will need to contact your nearest IBEW local union hall. You can join as a groundman and sign the books there at your home local and any other IBEW local in the U.S. Also, apply to every union apprenticeship you can and start your apprenticeship with the one that gives you the first opportunity. You must have your Class A CDL to get a groundman ticket and to apply for the apprenticeships.
The IBEW has 9 apprenticeships that are broken up into jurisdictions covering multiple states. SELCAT, NEAT, NW LINE and CAL/NEV have a jurisdiction clause that states you must live in their jurisdiction to apply. Once accepted into an IBEW apprenticeship you will be on your way to being trained in all aspects of linework including, transmission, distribution, underground, and substation work. The apprenticeship will take you 3.5 to 4 years to complete. After completion, you will receive your Journeyman Lineman ticket, Department of Labor certificate, and college credits. While in the apprenticeship you will receive the union benefits which include medical, dental, and vision health insurance (100% paid by the contractor) for you and your family, 2 pensions, and 10-25% of your gross wages matched by the contractor and put into your retirement. The pros of the IBEW are the wages, benefits, training, and having a voice in your working conditions. The cons of the IBEW are if you do not live in a union strong state then you will have to travel for work and the apprenticeship is harder to get into.
How to work at a local utility?
The U.S. has around 3,300 different utilities, including major power companies, co-ops, and local municipalities. Most utility companies have their own Department of Labor recognized apprenticeships. For most utility companies, you can apply to their apprenticeship, but it is easier to first start out as an intern, meter reader, or groundman, as those employee’s usually have first bid on the utility’s apprenticeship. Some utilities are union, and some are non-union. Pay, benefits and retirement will vary depending on geographical location. Pros to a utility company are you will almost always be home every night unless out on storm or call outs, and some utilities have great benefits and retirement. The cons to the utility companies are, some, especially local co-ops, can be near impossible to get hired on at, and usually your training will only be on their system. You will only learn the framing, work methods and procedures for that one utility.
How to work as a Non-Union Contractor?
There are hundreds of line construction contractors in the U.S., from little mom and pop operations to major contractors that have a presence across the country. These companies are usually the easiest to get hired on at and start getting some experience in the trade after line school. Some of these companies do offer apprenticeships. Some of the apprenticeships are recognized by the Department of Labor and some are not. Make sure you do an apprenticeship that is recognized by the DOL or you are wasting your time. Also, with contractors, you do not have to be in an apprenticeship to work your way up the ranks from groundman, Class C Lineman, Class B Lineman, then to Class A lineman. The pros to working for a non-union contractor are the chances of being within driving distance of home each night, and they are easier to get hired on at. The cons are benefits are usually lacking, pay is not always the best, getting promoted to your next classification and getting a raise is solely up to management, and training and experience is usually limited and greatly depends on the lineman you have training you.
Now it is up to you to decide which route is best for you, whether it be the IBEW, Utility, or Non-Union Contractor. The choice is yours. As a Journeyman Lineman I suggest you get your Class A CDL and start getting experience wherever the first opportunity comes from. If you want to be the best that you can be, your ultimate goal should be to get into an apprenticeship and learn every aspect of linework. Never limit yourself to one field of training. Listen and learn everything you can from the Lineman that you work with. Electricity is not going any where soon and you will have a unique craft that will benefit you for life. Always be willing to learn, be safe, and be your brothers’ keeper.