ALLIANCE – An array of utility poles and an electrical transfer station stand behind two steel buildings along Kansas Street in Alliance. There are no live electrical wires, but there is plenty of activity as people climb the poles and work on the insulators and transformers.
The activity is all part of the Powerline Construction and Maintenance program offered through Western Nebraska Community College. Gering High School graduate Edward Salazar serves as the powerline coordinator/instructor.
The program has been offered since 2006 when the Panhandle Rural Electric Membership Association (PREMA) decided it needed to do something different with its hiring program. It seemed that PREMA would hire graduates from schools in Eastern Nebraska and South Dakota to fill positions, but once the new hires completed their four-year apprenticeship and training and became certified as linemen, they would often leave to go back home. With WNCC able to offer the program locally, companies such as PREMA, Wheat Belt Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District and the Cities of Alliance and Gering could hire local workers and keep them longer. Graduates have found jobs in Potter as well as Pine Bluffs and Cheyenne in Wyoming among other places.
“We’ve served the purpose,” Salazar said. “A lot of that theory as well is that, with the turnover that they would have, even hiring local guys off the street and then they would invest in them, some of the guys wouldn’t really realize whether they liked this or not until they started climbing or actually working with electricity and they were thinking, ‘Ah, this really isn’t for me.’ There was turnover that way as well. These students pay to do it. They pay to learn, so they’re really invested in it themselves.”
The program is not for the faint of heart. Not only will a student end up climbing 30- to 60-foot tall utility poles, but they’re doing it carrying a heavy load of equipment.
“The initial biggest challenge for them is how physical it is,” Salazar said. “It’s very physically demanding, which I feel in turn makes it mentally demanding, so that first semester, eight weeks, we do a lot of climbing. They get sore. They get tired. It’s just very, very physically demanding. The reason we start off with climbing is because, if you can do our work off the pole, you can do the work in the bucket.”
Nothing the students work on at the facility in Alliance is energized, but the climbing and work on the equipment is otherwise the same as what they will experience in the workplace. Salazar said that hands-on experience is critical for people looking to go into one of the 10 most dangerous professions. He said it takes a certain mentality to be able to do the work as he tells of his first week on the job.
“I had to climb a 70-foot pole, first pole I ever climbed in my life,” Salazar said. “It was scary. Being prior military, being a wrestler – especially for Mr. (Chuck) Deter (at Gering High School) – I think I had that mindset. I think you do have to be very mentally tough to climb poles, to work on power lines that have enough voltage and current to hurt you if you make a mistake.”The students have an opportunity to learn from Salazar, who spent two years in the Army after graduating from GHS and is an experienced lineman. Salazar has worked in construction, and has been working as a lineman since 1999. He is a member in good standing of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers #111 out of Denver. He has gone numerous times to help with recovery efforts following fires, hurricanes and other weather events. An accident forced Salazar to have back surgery and elbow surgery, and that led him into teaching beginning in 2014.
“I like to say it was divine intervention,” he said. “The school found out that I was a power lineman and they were actively searching for a power lineman. Obviously, I met the criteria, and I’ve been teaching ever since. And I love it. I haven’t thought of going back, because I get to be a part of these guys’ careers forever, and I take that serious. I really enjoy that I get to be in their initial learning process.”
Teaching the trade hasn’t always been the way things work in the lineman industry, but Salazar said that is changing with the emphasis on safety.
“There were so many new positions being created, but a lot of times the older guys wouldn’t teach you everything that they knew because they didn’t want you taking their jobs,” he said. “I have a different philosophy. I want these guys to be as good if not better than me so if I go back out and I go to work, I want to know that they’ve been well trained.”