CHIPPEWA FALLS — Riley Cade prefers a job up in the clouds — or even down in the dirt.
The 19-year-old from Westby is one of 36 students enrolled in Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Electric Power Distribution program, studying to become a lineworker with his current session since June.
Xcel Energy, CVTC officials and local lawmakers were at the technical college Tuesday to get a firsthand look at the training and work Cade and his classmates are doing in their nine-month program.
The trip to the college was part of National Lineworkers Appreciation Day and was designed to remind the community and those involved in the industry to support the men and women who climb poles and dig in the dirt with live wires to ensure light, heat and cool air are constant.
“So, at the end of the day, most people don’t really know what a lineman does until there’s no electricity,” said Adam Wehling, CVTC’s dean of Agriculture, Energy, Construction and Transportation. “So what we’re trying to do is recognize people while everything is still working, so they can still show that appreciation.”
The students in instructor and program director Bandi Henke’s class were working in small groups to practice digging for ground lines, rescuing another lineman, deconstructing lines and various other high-climbing actions.
Henke will rotate foreman positions within each group, so each student has the opportunity to experience a leadership role.
Teamwork and safety are important aspects to the lineman work, Henke said, making his students circle up every day before they do field work to go over safety practices.
In the real fields, Henke said groups of lineman become close, relying on one another for the work they do and the safety that comes with it. The students are working with dead wires in the practice field, but not only is safety an important practice for the future, the students are working near highly active power lines, which have the ability to transfer energy to the students’ dead ones.
“We’re hard-working, but we also have fun,” said Henke, who graduated from CVTC’s program in 1998 and has worked as a lineman in Wisconsin and Alaska. “You don’t really go home safe if you’re not on the same page.”
While climbing harnesses and safety procedures have added safety measures to the job, safety becomes even more imperative as severe weather knocks out power.
As senior director for distribution operations for NSP Wisconsin — an operating company of Xcel Energy’s — BJ Rauckman said safety is also a concern for the energy company.
Once a student finishes the course load, they are often shuffled into apprenticeship programs within private, public, cooperative, contract and other energy industries, continuing their education and training, Rauckman and Wehling said.
“All of our guys are highly trained. They come into the position and work through — if we get them as apprentices — they work through their apprenticeship and learn from other line workers that have more experience, more seasoned lineworkers,” Rauckman said. “But by the time they’re out in the storm, they’re a highly trained workforce.”
Rauckman was joined by other Xcel energy representatives, including Michael Cedarblade, operation manager. Cedarblade also sits on an advisory board at CVTC, guiding the college through industry trends and needs of the workers it trains.
The biggest adjustments Cedarblade said he has noticed include industry standards, safety and materials used. All of those changes are communicated to CVTC, which, with help from donations and support through groups such as Xcel Energy, modifies and updates its programs.
For Cade, the program has included hard work, but it’s the kind he’s motivated to do.
Inspired by a friend who completed the program, Cade is looking forward to working outside and the challenges that come with restoring power to neighborhoods following storms.
“We get up in the middle of the night and get your power back on,” said Cade, who is looking to return to the La Crosse area for work but is open to any job. “We’re basically on call 24/7 I’d say and get up in all sorts of conditions.”
Cade and his classmates have been climbing poles since the course began, and on Tuesday, he and his group were deconstructing wire.
The students have already developed relationships and a team with one another, Cade said, often asking each other for help when they need it and studying together after class. Cade encouraged those interested in lineworker jobs to work hard for their career.
“Apply, wait it out, get in the program, don’t fall behind on homework, because Bandi’s super strict with that,” Cade said. “And he’s got it all laid out – don’t procrastinate. If you have questions, ask.”
The wait list for CVTC’s program, Henke said, is 130 students, but that’s common with other schools and programs, he added. CVTC’s program has been around since 1970, giving the college a reputation for its work and product of students, Henke said.
The college, Wehling said, spends about $5,000 per year to update its equipment, including the poles in the lineman practice fields.
But the updates and changes to the program are necessary, Wehling and Henke said, as humanity’s lifestyle depends on it.
“Without linemen,” Wehling said “it’s going to be hard to maintain the lifestyle we’ve become accustomed to living.”
“At the end of the day, most people don’t really know what a lineman does until there’s no electricity.” Adam Wehling, CVTC’s dean of Agriculture, Energy, Construction and Transportation