Westmoreland County Community College, FirstEnergy team up

Joe Napsha
| Friday, Jan. 13, 2012

With 18 percent of its linemen eligible to retire and more baby-boomer linemen close to retirement age, West Penn Power Co. is starting an initiative in the region to train the next generation of workers to repair downed lines and install electric power.

West Penn Power in Greensburg signed an agreement on Thursday with Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood to form an educational partnership to prepare students, through classroom and hands-on field work, for jobs as electric utility line workers. Students who complete the two-year program will earn an associate of applied science degree in electric utility technology.

The program combines the community college's academic courses in electrical fundamentals and support services for students with the utility's Power Systems Institute that offers unique technical and applied skills necessary to be power line technicians, said Daniel Obara, the college's president.

The program will provide West Penn Power with qualified workers as it replaces an aging work force of line workers, as well as fill any needs once the economy recovers and electric demand increases, said David McDonald, regional president of West Penn Power, which is part of FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio. FirstEnergy established the Power Systems Institute Program in 2000 and has operated it in the service areas of other Pennsylvania utilities it owns -- Metropolitan Edison, Pennsylvania Electric and Pennsylvania Power.

The line workers' educational program will begin in the fall with classes at the college's campus near Youngwood and training at West Penn Power's service center near Jeannette. West Penn and the college will select 12 to 15 students for the first class, Obara said. Students will spend about 60 percent of the program in the classroom, with the remainder of their time at the Jeannette service center, Obara said.

West Penn Power will teach the students how to climb a utility pole, repair downed lines and install lines. Students will have to master driving large utility trucks, work safely in all kinds of weather and understand electricity. They will gain field experience working with line crews in the summer of 2013, McDonald said.

The training program is timely because "the teachers (senior line workers) will be leaving the building" in the next few years because many of them are in their early- to mid-50s, and they often retire between the ages of 58 and 60, said Robert Whalen, president of Utility Workers of America Local 102, which represents about 250 West Penn line workers.

It will give new line workers "a good start" to learning how to do their job safely "so you come home to your family," at the end of the workday, Whalen said.

The graduates will have an excellent opportunity to get "family-sustaining jobs," Obara said.

The average annual wage of an electric utility lineman in Pennsylvania is $58,220, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' May 2010 Occupational Wage and Employment Estimates.

Beginning line workers at West Penn Power earn an average salary of $43,600, said Joseph Cerenzia, West Penn spokesman.

The top scale for a veteran lineman at West Penn Power is about $30 an hour, Whalen said. Line workers typically earn more as a result of working overtime, which invariably occurs because of power outages from storms, Whalen said.

Education partnership

The partnership with West Penn Power to train workers in the specialized program is the second partnership the college has formed that focuses on the energy industry.

The school already offers a training program for workers to acquire skills for roustabout jobs in the state's booming natural gas industry. That certificate program, which began in September 2010, will evolve into a two-year certificate program beginning in the fall, Obara said.

The college is looking at other opportunities to form partnerships to increase its work force development initiatives, Obara said.

In the case of the training for electrical industry jobs, the college began discussing the possibility of a partnership with West Penn Power in August. West Penn could have partnered with other community colleges, but opted for WCCC, Obara said.

"It's a good fit. A lot of our academic area -- Westmoreland, Greene, Fayette and Indiana counties --- fits into their footprint," Obara said, referring to West Penn Power's service territory.

With all the technical support and equipment necessary to conduct such a program, it was not financially feasible for the college without West Penn Power's support, Obara said.

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