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School Provides the Spark for Future Linemen : Training: These hardy men and women climb poles and learn to repair electrical equipment. They know they are beginning a dangerous line of work.

They are barely visible over the roof of the school. But as one walks around to the rear of Rancho Santiago College, there they stand--about 30 telephone poles in a circular pattern on a small patch of land.

On Saturday, as every weekend, this suburban Stonehenge is the official training ground for union electrical apprentices--the men and women who erect and maintain power lines.

“My whole family’s in it, and there’s such a sense of accomplishment when you’re done putting a line up, and you know, in 20 years, you can drive by and say, ‘Hey, I built that line,’ ” said Kimberley Rowley, who became on Saturday the first woman to graduate from the California-Nevada Joint Apprentice Training Center.

Rowley was speaking from a roped-in seat about 10 feet off the ground as she and Shannon Skinner worked to fix a transformer cable.

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At varying heights on electrical poles around her, other graduates and students were working on similar skills: climbing the 25- to 40-foot high poles, using long gripping sticks to manipulate simulated high voltage wire, or pulleying up a cardiopulmonary-resuscitation dummy to practice first-aid procedures from the top of the poles.

Unlike the students trained by the utilities programs, most graduates will work full time for electrical contractors, and the school is funded entirely by the contractors and local electrical unions.

Although the training program uses a classroom and the pole-climbing course at the college, there are no special academic requirements. But participants must be over 18 and physically fit to climb poles.

“When these individuals graduate from here, they are such a hot item, they get picked up right away,” explained program instructor Fred Barker. “They are the people that Southern California Edison calls when they are understaffed, and need a line built . . . or when there’s a hurricane or disaster and they need the electricity restored quickly.”

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The professional line worker is a journeyman who moves from job to job on a regular basis, explained Barker. To be “in the trade,” apprentices must not only learn the academics of electrical manipulation, like using transformers or which voltages are appropriate for which uses, but must also master any fear of heights and the dangers of working with high-voltage electricity.

“There’s a saying in the trade that we work with everything from light bulbs to lightning bolts,” Barker said. The danger in the work is what draws a lot of people to the profession, and it also scares a lot of people away, he added.

But for many of the students who graduated on Saturday, line work is just an enjoyable way to make a living. A union journeyman is paid about $23 an hour, and many of the students say they enjoy the money, being outdoors and getting to travel.

“In the beginning, I got interested in the school because I needed the money,” explained Dean Evans, who will take the journeyman test later this year. “But since then, I’ve learned to revere and respect the linemen. . . . I’ve seen a lot of things in the last few years.”

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Evans was referring to accidents, which are common for people who spend their working hours more than 30 feet in the air. In the four years since he began working, Evans said he watched a man fall from the top of a pole and die, and saw another man crushed under a falling pole.

“It’s a very dangerous trade, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” said 32-year-old Douglas Archibald. “But that’s part of the attraction for some people; there’s a feeling that we’re bad and you’re not.” Denis Nageotte, who has also graduated from the program, agreed. “I used to work in a job where you had to wear a suit and tie, but this working as a lineman, it gives you a chance to use your head and it’s still physical.”

“Every day is different, and every pole is a different problem.”


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