One of the first things Lance Caldwell tells students in the newly created Powerline Technology Program at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs is to look around them.
“Every single thing that they see in the room has been made with what?” he’ll ask.
The answer is electricity.
“Electricity had a play in every single object we see,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “Without electricity, all the things we see around us would not be possible.”
Not only that, but all the new technology that’s coming out, from artificial intelligence to cloud computing, also relies on electricity.
That demand is fueling an eye-popping rise in power lineman salaries, and it’s attracting a lot of students into a new program at WWC to train them.
“First-year apprentices make around $86,000 to $93,000,” Wyatt Rees told Cowboy State Daily. Rees is one of Caldwell’s students in the Powerline Technology Program at WWC.
That salary level is mighty attractive, classmate Carson Jones agreed. But he also is attracted to the adventure of the job.
“I spent a day with my cousin, Hagen Jones, and we went and climbed a pole,” Jones said. “From then on, I was hooked on it.”
He and Rees both were initially admit to being a little afraid of heights. But the idea that their own safety is under their control has made that tolerable. So has the highly attractive salaries they are expecting to pull, even as journeymen.
Both are aware that they could make even more money if they’re willing to travel and leave the Cowboy State.
Those willing to travel could make $200,000 out of the gate, Caldwell told Cowboy State Daily.
“It’s a possibility depending on where you prefer to go,” he said. “If you work in bigger cities like in California, there are places really crammed for linemen, and you can make $200,000-plus.”
A Special Kind Of Crazy
But the job’s not for the faint of heart.
“It takes a special type of individual,” Caldwell told Cowboy State Daily. “Maybe a little half-off, half-kilter.”
Linemen are expected to climb poles that are 120 to 180 feet tall. And they’re working with lines that might be carrying as much as 24,000 volts of electricity, so they need to have great concentration and mental discipline. There’s zero time for daydreaming.
The hours can also be inordinately long, and rarely are they going to coincide with a convenient schedule and pleasant weather.
Caldwell, who spent most of his career as a lineman in Alaska, used to sleep with lineman flashlights plugged into all the outlets of his bedroom.
“If the power goes off, they all light up,” he said. “That would wake me up, so I’d be a little more coherent to answer the boss’ call.”
While power is oftentimes restored to customers relatively quickly, rarely is that because the lineman has fixed whatever caused them to go out.
“Many people do not realize what goes on in the background,” he said. “When the lights come back on, it’s usually because they re-routed or served it in a different way. It doesn’t mean that whatever caused the power outage has been fixed.”
Fixing the problem can take many hours. Caldwell has worked as much as 39 hours straight as a lineman, and in all sorts of weather.
Demand For Energy Is Rising
Energy is not only a foundation for our homes, our shelters, our schools, and our hospitals, it’s also the foundation for all kinds of manufacturing and business operations. There’s practically nothing in the world that doesn’t rely in one respect or another on energy.
Energy is increasing in demand for technological advancements, too. There are crypto farms coming online to mine things like Bitcoin, as well as cloud computing to rapidly share data with remote headquarters, artificial intelligence and super-computing data centers that crunch complex formulas and equations — all of which point to a future where the world needs more, not less, power.
“We as a society are so drawn toward technology now,” Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jona Whitesides told Cowboy State Daily. “But we forget that the main driver of technology is electricity. You need power to do all of that.”
Rocky Mountain Power is an operating division of PacificCorp. The parent company is already building 400 new miles of transmission lines to help it serve the increased demand it is forecasting, as well as integrate new energy resources that are coming online, particularly in Wyoming.
That does include wind and solar, which will provide energy from a renewable source, which states like California, Washington and Oregon are demanding. It also includes the nuclear power plant that TerraPower has proposed in Kemmerer.
The transmission line will also hook up with future carbon capture projects that are planned in the Cowboy State — forced by a Wall Street world that has largely adopted Environmental, Social, and Governance metrics, or ESG, when deciding where to allow capital investments.
A Retirement Cliff Ahead
Given these factors, demand for linemen is only expected to increase down the line, Rocky Mountain Power’s Regional Business Manager Ron Wild told Cowboy State Daily.
“Rocky Mountain Power needs linemen,” he said. “All of the large industries need linemen. All of the rural electric associations need linemen, so linemen are a critical position of employment across all industries and across all states.”
That demand is already pretty high, which is part of what’s driving salaries up, but the industry as a whole is also facing a huge labor crunch.
Wyoming’s unemployment rate is at 2.9%. Nearby North Dakota is 1.9%. Nationwide, unemployment is around 3.8%.
Labor is hard to get, and it’s going to get harder.
“My age and above are all about to cash out and retire,” Caldwell said. “There’s going to be a huge gap when a big bunch of us retire.”
These factors are all part of what has led Rocky Mountain Power and its foundation to team up with Western Wyoming Community College to create a program to help train the next generation of linemen.
The program started last year and has already cranked out between 30 to 60 students, almost all of whom quickly found jobs as linemen, Caldwell told Cowboy State Daily.
A First Of Its Kind In Wyoming
The new program is the only one of its kind in Wyoming, Caldwell and Wild told Cowboy State Daily, and it’s already attracting attention from other states too. There’s a student from California, for one, and a New York company has been in contact with a student it wants to hire.
“This program has rapidly drawn notoriety across the Western United States,” Wild told Cowboy State Daily. “I don’t think we tapped into the East much yet, but we’re working on it.”
One of the things that Wild particularly likes about the program, though, has nothing to do with filling energy jobs. It’s the sense he has that the people who are part of it are serving a larger need for society, and making a difference in the lives of the students themselves.
“These students are able to change their stars, to borrow a line from ‘A Knights Tale,’” Wild said. “And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, but it’s worth watching. Because it’s possible to change your stars. You just have to believe that there’s something out in front of you, and then work to achieve it.”
Changing those stars is what first attracted Jones and Rees to the program. Both of them were looking for something lucrative they could do that would keep them in their home state.
“For myself, I’d love to stay in Wyoming,” Jones said. “That’s my big goal and dream, if I can stay in Wyoming.”
The Cowboy State has so much to offer, Rees added.
“The ability to walk out the door and not see hundreds of buildings,” he said. “You look out and you see hundreds of miles of open space, untouched by man, mountains, sagebrush hills — something about that really calls to me and makes me not want to leave.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.