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Powerline technicians learn the ropes

There are no snow days in this class. Work is not cancelled due to inclement weather.

There are no snow days in this class. Work is not cancelled due to inclement weather.

Braving the elements is Bruce Cowton and His Cambrian College powerline technical students in a pole climbing exercise. On a cold January day with a northwest wind whipping snow sideways, Cambrian College instructor Bruce Cowton had his first-year powerline technician apprentices-in-training harnessed and aloft 15 feet on poles hand-tossing a hacky-sack to one another.

The game is to develop students’ comfort level to work hands-free at height.

“The only thing that keeps us on the ground is lightning,” says Cowton, a former Ottawa Hydro worker.

With a semester of in-class instruction under their belts, this was the students'  first time they donned their fall-arrest gear and went outdoors.

“This is just basic to get used to their gear,” says Cowton.

There’s menial tasks to be learned with ropes and rigging, raising and lowering tools, and learning to drill with an old-fashioned brace and bit.

“It’s a progression, once they get past that, I’ll introduce something new.”

Does shimmying up a hydro pole during winter sound like a promising career?

No question, it’s the kind of rigorous and physically-demanding outdoor work reserved for a young person.

“It’s like being an underground miner or in a bucket truck at height,” says Geoff Dalton, Cambrian’s dean of computer and engineering technology, “it’s not for everyone.”

It also can be a dangerous job offering no forgiveness when coming in contact with high voltage wires.
The starting salary for lineman is a base rate of $18 an hour.

Likely all of the Cambrian apprentices who graduate this summer will find jobs with engineering firms, utility companies, private contractors and equipment suppliers.

The Sudbury post-secondary institution has almost 100 students in various levels of training since starting the program in September, 2006.

The program was launched through a partnership with local industry and the Electrical and Utility Safety Association (EUSA), which is providing safety training needed to become full apprentices.

Linemen are, and will be, in great demand not just because of the flurry of new water, wind and solar developments across Ontario, but because many workers are retiring.

An industry study in 2004 indicated one-third of workers in this sector are eligible to retire within the decade. This could create a shortfall between 1,840 and 3,542 employees.

The electricity sector is screaming for new people. The demand for power and capacity is going up, and the availability of qualified people is going down, says program advisor Dean Gatien, a safety and quality manager for PowerTel, a Sudbury utility contractor.

“We’re going to be as busy as this country’s been since after the Second World War,” says Gatien, considering the amount of transmission and sub-station work to be done. Canada’s electricity infrastructure is 40 to 60 years old and its reliability is just not there.

Gatien and other private and public stakeholders, including Sudbury Hydro, have had direct input into the course curriculum.

He says his company has a dozen apprentices in various positions, but it’s not enough for their needs. “Finding a place to work is not going to be an issue for them.”

Cambrian students undergo two job placements, the first after eight months in school, usually at a utility in Ontario or they go to work for a private contractor.

The program is a combination of in-class and practical training with 16 weeks of co-op placements during its two years.

The grads coming out have a Red Seal standard of training, a trade certificate that is transferable anywhere in Canada, and even globally.

Dalton says for industry to train someone off the street with no experience, there’s usually a seven-year payback window.

With 64 weeks of training, Gatien says Cambrian’s job-ready apprentices will have more formal knowledge and electrical theory than most linesmen with 10 years experience.

“We’re producing apprentices, these kids are not summer students.”

Come May, the lineman program will be physically expanding their training environs.

Cambrian has set aside a six-acre lot on campus for three to four circuits of poles for students to train on an underground distribution system. A series of “port-a-holes,” special collars in the ground allow students to easily install and remove poles.

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