Industry Collaboration Creates State’s First Utility Lineman Program in Petal
Petal School District senior Keith Booker holds a shotgun stick to ground the power line prior to completing work on the line.
We’ve all experienced the frustration of a power outage while enjoying the comfort of our air-conditioned home on a hot summer day. Those frustrations turn to relief when the electricity is restored by utility linemen. Their job isn’t as simple as flipping a switch: Few people know linemen spend hours each day up poles 40 feet or higher in their own communities and many weeks far from home helping areas affected by natural disasters.
To cultivate the next generation of linemen, a collaboration between Mississippi industry and Petal High School (PHS) created the state’s first high school-level utility lineman program. Organizers witnessed the lineman program’s positive effects during its pilot year in 2018-2019 and already see much to celebrate concerning its successful preparation of students for the field.
Now in its second year, the one-year program provides students with 14 hours of college credit through Pearl River Community College (PRCC). This allows for a faster track to the workforce, as high schoolers can now complete the postsecondary program offered by PRCC in 10 months instead of two years.
Sparked by a Conversation
The initial idea for the program evolved from a friendly conversation between Superintendent Matthew Dillon and Chain Electric Chief Financial Officer Jarred King.
Chain Electric’s leaders saw potential in the program and provided resources needed to train students. Not only did they donate essential supplies for building power poles, leaders also allowed foreman Blake Jones to instruct the two-hour course.
Because this is the first program of its kind in the state, Jones’ experience proved beneficial in developing the new curriculum. He was initially asked by company leaders to sit in on a meeting with PHS, but that was not the end of his involvement. His 20 years of experience as a lineman made him the natural choice to be an instructor.
“I enjoy working with the younger students and training people, so here I am,” Jones said.
Jones, who went through Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s lineman program, said Chain Electric’s four-year apprenticeship program helped lay the foundation for Petal’s undertaking. He kept his industry experience in mind when helping develop the new curriculum. Jones asked himself, “What would help students if they decide to further their career, either by going to college or coming directly into the field?”
Creating a program that provides students soft skills in areas like leadership and teamwork was the answer to Jones’ question.
“Whether it was going to the workforce or college, I wanted to give [PHS students] a good product and have them prepared for any direction they decided to go,” he said.
Excitement around this new program is truly electric. PHS CTE Counselor Brooke Walter said many students asked how they could be part of the new endeavor.
Ten students joined the first class in 2018. Lane Cawthon and Bowen Knight, 2019 graduates who were part of that inaugural class, said the depth of a lineman’s work surprised them once the class began.
“There’s so much I learned that I didn’t know, including the different things you have to do with safety and sagging wires,” Knight said. “I always knew you had to climb poles, but I didn’t realize all the different steps you had to take to climb correctly and be safe.”
Students usually spend one day each week in the classroom working on computer modules, but most of the class is taught in the field. Students install their first pole the opening week of the year, then assemble and wire about 10 poles before taking them down at the end of the year.
Cawthon and Knight said the technical knowledge and experience they gained in the program gave them a significant head start when they entered the program at PRCC. Jones also said he saw fellow classmates gain confidence as a sense of camaraderie developed.
“Some catch on to climbing really fast; some catch on to pulling wire really fast. Everybody progresses in different areas faster than others,” Jones said. “They can use their strengths to help the others out. They started coaching each other. I was really proud to see how they helped each other.”
Through Jones’ guidance and with the help of classmates, students who were unsure of their capabilities quickly realized they could exceed their own expectations.
“I learned I’m capable of more than what I thought I was,” Cawthon said. “So far, I’m doing great and surprising myself.”
As Cawthon, Knight and their classmates embark on new endeavors, a new crop of 12 students already sees the benefits of the program.
“I thought it would be more of an individual job, but I was proven wrong the first day out there,” said senior Justin Cedotal, who plans to continue training to become a lineman after graduation.
“It has helped me grow as an individual working with a team,” he said. “I can influence them, and they can influence me.”
For fellow senior Parker Evans, the lessons learned from the utility lineman program will aid him on a different type of team when he joins the military following graduation.
“You have to work as a team. If one person doesn’t know what they’re doing and they don’t ask, it could end in a casualty,” Evans said. “I didn’t know much about power lines, but I’ve learned so much along the way.”
Ben Wade, the first-year CTE director for PHS, said he receives first-hand testimonials from students that reinforce how valuable CTE is in preparing them for the workforce.
“You’re really able to see that CTE truly is the first line of workforce development and that relationships are the way we can foster that,” he said. “The creation of the program was birthed out of collaborative conversation between a school district, community college and industry. With everyone getting involved, we are better together.”