Cathie Anderson

Cathie Anderson: SMUD goes on the offense to guard its linemen

As more baby boomers enter their golden years, the nation’s utilities are seeing a generation of experienced linemen take retirement. That trend has Sacramento Municipal Utility District guarding its crew of 135 linemen – and women – against raiders.

“We’ve had circumstances where we’ve trained somebody, and another utility comes and tries to poach them,” said Mike Wirsch, SMUD’s director of grid assets. “It’s fairly common at this point.”

He spoke to me on Thursday, known as Journeymen Linemen Recognition Day in California. The state Assembly chose July 10 to recognize linemen because that date in 1896 marks the death of Henry Miller, founder of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He fell from a utility pole in Washington, D.C., after an electric shock. The nature of his demise illustrates the kinds of dangers that linemen face daily to keep the lights on for consumers.

Despite the risks, Wirsch receives 300 to 600 applications each year for just 10-20 apprenticeship openings. Of those hires, only 40 percent will get their journeyman card. When up on a utility pole in the presence of 69,000 volts of electrical current, Wirsch said, they come to grips with whether they made the right career choice.

SMUD’s philosophy is that the best way to get well-trained, safety-conscious linemen is to have one generation pass its knowledge base to the next, Wirsch said. It takes four years to bring an apprentice to journeyman status, he said, so he doesn’t like losing anyone to poachers. Bigger utilities have offered signing bonuses to his crew members.

“As soon as they have that journeyman card, then their value goes substantially up,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep most of our people just because of the workplace, the environment and the culture.” And the pay and benefits are good, too, he added.

Trainees start out making about $33 an hour at SMUD, and a journeyman can earn up to $50 to $54 an hour.