Apprenticeships Power Up Utility Workers

September 23, 2016
Utilities depend on CVTC program
Eau Claire, WI – Jeff Fellenz has a good background in electrical work, but when he was hired for a line worker position with Clark Electric Co-op in Greenwood, he wasn’t ready for big work with high voltage lines. That’s why his title reads Electric Line Worker – Apprentice.
In that capacity, Fellenz is still learning, with on-the-job experience and classroom and lab work at Chippewa Valley Technical College, where he spent the week of Sept. 12-16 with 42 other apprentices from a four-state area who are working their way toward becoming journeymen line workers.
Apprenticeships once played a much greater role in training the next generation of American workers in a variety of fields than they do today, when they have largely been supplanted by technical colleges and other training programs. But apprenticeships are still essential in certain fields, including among electricians and electrical power distribution workers. Wisconsin technical colleges are an essential partner with industry in electric power apprenticeship programs.
The field is no place for new workers to learn from their mistakes, which can be a matter of life and death. Workers need intense training.
“The industry demands highly educated employees,” said Randy Larson, instructor of CVTC’s Electric Line Worker Apprenticeship program. “Workers depend on the safety of others. With a technically trained mind, you will understand in depth the industry, work procedures and equipment operations, so a person is mindfully safer in the field.”
“At work, I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience,” said Fellenz, now a second year apprentice. “As an apprentice, you do everything except certain hot line work that is more complicated.”
“I’m doing pretty much everything but high voltage hot line work,” said Jacob Dahlberg, the fourth generation in the family-owned Dahlberg Light and Power in Solon Springs, Wis. and now line worker apprentice. “We’re doing a lot of digging and setting up poles and wires.”
When they become journeymen, the line workers are handling hot wires with up to 34,500 volts.
Larson said it’s important for journeyman workers to not just know what to do in the field, but to understand why.
“We will have them in the classroom for two full weeks the first semester and two full weeks the second semester, 40 hours a week, for a total of 160 hours in the school year, and a total of 640 hours over four years of apprenticeship,” Larson said. Most of that time is spent in the classroom, with some work in CVTC’s hot lab.
“On-the-job is about how to do the work,” said Dahlberg. “In the classroom at CVTC is the theory behind it, about why we do it.”
 “What the apprenticeship program offers is some of the book work, and some hands-on experience,” said Tom Bushman, interim executive director of the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin, a support organization for city-owned utilities. “It’s a partnership arrangement in which the apprentices go back to their utilities for experience. The majority of the hands-on training is performed at the utility.”
First year apprentices are paid about 60 percent of the wages of a journeyman, increasing to 95 percent by the fourth-year, according to Larson.
Utilities depend on the CVTC apprenticeship program. Larson said large investor-owned power companies have their own apprenticeship programs, but in Wisconsin there are 82 municipal utilities, 22 rural electric co-ops, one generation and transmission co-op, and a few small privately or investor-owned utilities that need programs like CVTC’s.
Wayne Siverling, director of the River Falls municipal utility, said there is a merchant’s apprenticeship correspondence program, but the workers would have to do a lot of it on their own. “CVTC has a much better training situation for our apprentices,” he said. “They have Randy to answer questions for them as they go through the program, and they learn from other apprentices.”
North West Technical College in Green Bay has the only other technical college-based line worker apprentice program in the state. Technical colleges in Fennimore, Janesville and Beaver Dam also have introductory 9-month Electrical Power Distribution programs, but not apprenticeship programs.
“Eau Claire is considered the Mecca of line worker training in the state,” Larson said, pointing out the training programs CVTC has for journeyman workers, too.  “There are other line schools, but they don’t have the continuing education we do.”
But it’s not just the utilities that count on apprentices becoming trained journeymen. The public needs them, too.
“In a storm situation, the people count on us,” said Logan Snyder, an apprentice with the city of River Falls utility. “When there’s a big outage with a lot of people out of power, the department’s Facebook page just blows up. We are the only electrical utility in town, so we have to make sure everything is running smoothly.”
Chippewa Valley Technical College delivers superior, progressive technical education which improves the lives of students, meets the workforce needs of the region, and strengthens the larger community. Campuses are located in Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire, Menomonie, Neillsville and River Falls. CVTC serves an 11-county area in west central Wisconsin. CVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) and is one of 16 WTCS colleges located throughout the state.
Mark Gunderman, Communications Specialist, (715) 831-7288