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PEC training center in Marble Falls addresses lineworker shortage

PEC training center in Marble Falls

Trainees use bucket trucks to access powerlines. While the trucks are commonly used in the field, apprentices enrolled in the PEC Lineworker Apprenticeship Program also must learn to scale the 30- to 60-foot poles on their own. Photo by Ronnie Madrid/Divine Radiance Photography

Nick Morris began his career with the Pedernales Electric Cooperative seven years ago, graduating in 2018 from Northwest Line College in Denton, which, at the time, was the only place to train for the necessary certification in the state. Now, he teaches those same skills but closer to home. 

Morris is a technical training instructor at PEC’s Safety and Technical Training Center in Marble Falls, a year-old campus with the purpose of building the local workforce during a nationwide lineworker shortage. 

Morris is one of more than 100 journeyworkers employed by the cooperative. A journeyworker is a certified and experienced professional who helps mentor lineworker apprentices in the field and, for instructors such as Morris, at the center, 105 U.S. 281 North.

“I quickly realized that training apprentices is my favorite part of being a journeyman,” he said. 

Over the past decade, growth within cities and the retirement of older lineworkers have resulted in a shortage of trained employees, said James Vazquez, who manages the center.

“Once these folks walk out, that’s a lot of knowledge we’ll never get back,” Vasquez said. “That’s why getting people in and out of this facility is so important.” 

Currently, PEC has 111 journeyworkers and 85 apprentices on staff.

James Vasquez, who manages the PEC lineworker training facility in Marble Falls
James Vasquez, who manages the PEC lineworker training facility in Marble Falls, explains work scenarios the co-op can simulate. Photo by Ronnie Madrid/Divine Radiance Photography

Vasquez is a second-generation lineman, having followed in the footsteps of his mother, Rosa, who was the first woman to be inducted into the International Lineman’s Museum’s Hall of Fame in Shelby, North Carolina. He has worked with the cooperative for 24 years and played an integral part in building the training program and facility since 2016. 

Before the center opened, trainees had to travel over 200 miles one way to the Denton facility.

Through the Lineworker Apprenticeship Program now offered in Marble Falls, employees have access to state-of-the-art training done in partnership with Northwest Lineman College in Denton. They work hands on with high-tech equipment, including an energized transformer training simulator that replicates real-life scenarios. 

Apprentices, who are usually between the ages of 18 and 35, are paid to work on crews and gain on-the-job experience as they earn their Department of Labor Journeyworker certification. The program spans four years and includes 8,000 hours of training, which is taught by four experienced instructors. 

Safety training is the most important part as the job is inherently dangerous because of the high voltages of electricity that linemen work around on a daily basis, Vasquez said. Crews work in all weather conditions, the recent Texas snowstorm in February a prime example.

“It’s an unforgiving job, and so our safety manual is written in blood,” Vasquez said. “Before moving on, trainees must demonstrate they’ve learned the skills within each level.” 

Apprentices learn how to maneuver while wearing heavy rubber gloves that can withstand contact with high voltages of electricity and how to safely scale 30- to 60-foot-tall utility poles without the help of a bucket truck.

PEC training mannequins
Mannequins weighing 180 pounds are used in rescue drills to train apprentices in lifesaving techniques. The goal is to remove an injured or trapped lineworker from danger within two minutes. Photo by Ronnie Madrid/Divine Radiance Photography

The skill trainees take the most seriously is learning to rescue an injured lineman within two minutes, Vasquez said. They practice using 180-pound mannequins.

“We train to rescue ourselves,” he explained. “You can’t ever trust what’s up there. We have to teach (apprentices) how to use their senses. They learn that, although some of the job can be hazardous, you can respect the equipment and learn to operate it safely.”

Pursuing certification at the Marble Falls training location provides career flexibility for people like Dominique Moore and James Mardis, both third-year apprentices with the program. 

“My favorite part is the changing environment,” Mardis said. “I love working outside. If you’re the type of person who can’t focus well in an office space, this is a great opportunity for you.” 

For Moore, it was the affordability of the program that drew him in after he changed previous plans to be an electrical engineer. 

“Some guys go to college and take out big loans to get a career,” Moore said. “Here, I’m getting paid to learn. I also like being a key part of the community, especially when kids see me out working. They get excited and stop to ask what I’m doing.” 

Anyone interested in working as a lineman for PEC can visit jobs.pec.coop and click on “become a lineworker” or call 888-554-4732 for more information.

brigid@thepicayune.com

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