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This story aired on Marketplace 8/30/12.
Northern California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric could lose nearly have of their entire workforce in the next five years. They call the wave of grey haired retirees The Silver Tsunami, and since cutting the power isn’t an option, PG&E is relying on a program called PowerPathway to train a new generation of utility workers.
At a pole climbing yard in Oakland, California, Ray Atkinson is pretty much training his replacement.
“Technically I could retire anytime after January first,” said Atkinson. “I’ve worked for PG&E for about 35 years, so I’ve been climbing poles since 1980.”
Atkinson has a mustache, hard hat, and deep voice. He’s your typical Bob The Builder. His student Olatungi Lawrence is a skinny teenager, inching up a utility pole for the first time. He’s just six feet off the ground and struggling to jab the steel spikes attached to his boots into the wooden pole.
Standing beneath Lawrence, Atkinson plays the role of pole climbing professor. “Right there I want you to drop straight into that pole,” commands Atkinson. “There you go, that’s what we’re looking for! Now you can lean over this side.”
Lawrence is 19 and the youngest in his class. He’s joined the PowerPathway in the hope of finding a career.
“It’s cool. They prepare you really well for it.” said Lawrence. “You’re never going up blind.” Lawrence graduated high school last year, and said most of his friends went to four year colleges, like UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. Lawrence considered college, but instead, decided to focus on finding a job, because he knows people with master’s degrees who still can’t find work.
“If I can get a job now and work towards that education, that’s a great position to be in,” said Lawrence. “Instead of having to go through four years of college and owe a whole bunch of money and have no way to pay for it.”
If Lawrence finishes his nine week boot camp, he’ll become a tier one candidate for an electrical lineman position at PG&E. Jeff Wilding, Director of Electric Operations Training, said trainees like Lawrence are a lot like minor league baseball players.
“The analogy is really that if you go recruit someone out of high school or college on a baseball team,” said Wilding, “they have to go through
that whole farm system before they can get to the major leagues. Linemen in this case being the major league. Those are our pros.”
Candidates will have to complete a one year pre-apprenticeship and then a four year apprenticeship before reaching the pros. But the compensation is high. Starting salary for a pre-apprenticship position pays $47 thousand per year, and if all goes well, Lawrence could be earning $100 thousand by the time he’s 24. But he’ll have to prove he has the skills and that he can do the job safely.
“If they can’t do it safely, we really can’t afford to have them with us,” said Wilding, who calls the PowerPathway a win win. It benefits PG&E because they’re able to test out job seekers before they apply, and for job seekers, the trainings are free, fast, and come with the potential of a lucrative career.