Cover Story

New School a 'Shining Example' of a Public/Private Partnership

“Supporting our communities is what co-ops are all about.” — Jeff Edwards

“Young people who choose this career are truly heroes.” — John Lee

 For all their warmth and charm, small rural communities often suffer from lack of educational and economic opportunity for young people.

This is a big part of the logic and reasoning behind the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative, described so eloquently by former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, beginning on page 16.

It’s also a large part of the reason Virginia’s consumer-owned electric cooperatives are avidly supporting the initiative through establishment of the Power Line Worker Training School, which begins classes this spring at Pickett Park near Blackstone as a part of Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC). Co-ops, by their very nature, exist to serve and support their communities.

Electric cooperatives also support the initiative and the school because of a pending critical shortage of skilled electric utility line workers. The new program will involve 11 weeks of intensive classroom and hands-on training, and will ready its graduates for employment as apprentice line workers at electric utilities.

“Supporting our communities is what co-ops are all about,” notes Southside Electric Cooperative President and CEO Jeffrey S. Edwards, whose utility developed a prototype Day in the Life of a Lineman program with local schools, which served as a springboard to spark and feed interest among area young people in careers as line workers. “We have been very gratified at the response among high school students in our communities, who want challenging, rewarding careers that will allow them to remain in rural Southside Virginia,” he explains.

“We’re extremely pleased to have had this opportunity to work with Gov. McAuliffe, Southside Virginia Community College, and the entire Community College System, to help train our young people for great careers as line workers, and to provide a needed boost to Southside Virginia,” says John C. Lee Jr., president and CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, another strong, early proponent of the school.

SVCC’s new Power Line Worker Training Program was one of five successful entries in the first Governor’s Competition for Talent Solutions, announced earlier this fall. The Power Line Worker Training Program will benefit from a $200,000 matching incentive grant intended to provide new workforce training options and develop the state’s rural economy as part of the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative. Former Gov. Baliles heads up the rural workforce training initiative as chairman of the community college system’s foundation.

“Awarding these grants exemplifies the Commonwealth’s commitment to building a demand-driven workforce system,” says Gov. McAuliffe. “We’re excited about the innovative solutions put forth and we look forward to working together with our community colleges and the private sector to train a new generation of highly skilled talent that will help us build a new Virginia economy.”

Thanks to a separate grant received earlier this year from SVCC’s Equipment Trust Fund, seed money was available to begin planning the Power Line Worker Training Program at SVCC’s Occupational/ Technical Center, located at Blackstone’s Pickett Park, site of the former U.S. Army base, Fort Pickett.

At that point, with encouragement from Edwards, Lee and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative President and CEO Kent D. Farmer, Virginia’s electric cooperatives quickly rallied behind the planned training program, providing support in an array of ways, from donations of materials and equipment, to financial assistance, to technical advice on how to design the program and set up the training yard.

“Cooperatives strongly support workforce training in the communities we serve, and of course the training that will take place at this new school will help provide our cooperatives with a pool of excellent young candidates for line worker positions,” points Farmer. “It was a natural fit for Virginia’s electric cooperatives to support both the Rural Horseshoe Initiative that will impact all rural areas, and specifically this line worker school that will benefit our workforce.”

“We literally could not have gotten this line worker program going without the strong support of Virginia’s electric cooperatives,” says Keith Harkins, vice president of work-force and continuing education for SVCC. “The way they got behind this worthy cause so strongly and so quickly was a sight to see.”

“We’ll be able to offer this demanding, technical training beginning in March of 2016,” adds Mary Jane Elkins, executive director of the SVCC Foundation, which administers donations. “This dream literally became a reality in less than a year, thanks to Virginia’s electric cooperatives and the Governor’s office. It’s a shining example of how a public/private partnership can and should work.”

Mecklenburg’s John Lee adds, “Young people who choose this career are truly heroes. They’re first responders who do what it takes — safely, efficiently and tenaciously — to get the power back on after storms and other outage events. This is a challenging career, but a truly fulfilling one, and we’re just delighted to have been a part of making it happen.”

Southside CEO Jeff Edwards notes that the Day in the Life of a Lineman program has led many students to reconsider their career plans. “Many young people will end up making this their life’s work. They’ll enjoy a wonderful career that’s more than just a job, working outdoors and helping thousands of people in their communities, providing a critically important, essential service.”

Rural Youth See Advantages in Career as Power Line Worker

Embarking on a career is a major moment in a young person’s life. For three young men in rural Southside Virginia, creation of the Power Line Worker Training School has moved them a step closer to settling on a life-career decision.

Electric-line work is hard, dangerous and demanding, often requiring the line worker to miss sleep and be exposed to uncomfortable weather extremes. Power outages rarely occur during the middle of the workday in bluebird weather.

Gage Clary

“I like the idea of working outdoors,” says Gage Clary, a senior at Park View High School in Brunswick County. “I think being a lineman would be a great job. I know several people in the electric-service business, and one of my best friends’ uncle is a lineman. I think it’s a good profession, one I’d like to pursue as a career.”

Clary, whose family is served by Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC), has spent time with MEC’s Clint Card, who showed him the types of work and the responsibilities of an electric-line worker.

Clary, who enjoys hunting, fishing, football and baseball, says, “I’m going to apply for the new program at Pickett Park when I finish high school. That’s what I’d like to pursue — a career as a lineman.”

Caleb Crowder, a senior at Amelia High School, also enjoys being outdoors. “I love to fish and hunt, and play sports,” he says. “And bad weather doesn’t bother me. I like being outside.”

Caleb Crowder

Like Clary, Crowder says he wants to attend the Power Line Worker Training School after graduating from high school. His interest in working as a power line worker began after talking to Jeff Edwards, CEO of Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC), which serves his family’s home.

“I’d been talking to some people about the idea of working as a lineman, and then I got to talk to Jeff, and he helped me make the decision,” says Crowder.

Crowder attended SEC’s program for high schoolers, A Day in the Life of a Lineman, in 2015, which reinforced his decision to pursue a line worker career.

“I love the idea of line work,” says Crowder. “It’s a good-paying job, and I really enjoy working outdoors.”

Jackie Lewis graduated from Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte County two years ago. He’s been able to cobble together several types of part-time work since graduation, but says he’d really like to get into electric-line work as a life career.

Jackie Lewis

A native of the tiny rural community of Wylliesburg, Lewis says he’s had an interest in the idea of being a lineman since he was about 16 years old.

“I’ve always liked being outdoors, and I like climbing,” he says. “Plus, I like learning about electricity, circuitry, and I like the idea of serving the community.

“I was going to attend the (electric-line worker training) school in Georgia, but the classes were full at the time,” he says.

 “Clint Card (of MEC) told me about the new school being formed in Blackstone, and that sounded like just what I need,” Lewis adds. He plans on applying to the school and hopes it leads to a career as a power line worker.

 “I’d love to be able to find a good job that would let me stay around here, where my family is and where I’ve grown up,” he says. “Plus, electric lineman is a career that will always be needed and something I could work at the rest of my life.”



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