With a median annual wage of $80,478 it’s no wonder people are clamoring for classes that provide either a certificate or degree in the electrical systems and power generation industry. The median salary for someone with a certificate or degree in the field with five years of experience jumps to $123,174, according to the California Community Colleges’ new Salary Surfer website.
Add the fact that jobs in the field are expected to grow by 36 percent through 2018 and the programs at the California Community Colleges are heating up like a solar photovoltaic cell at high noon or a rapidly spinning turbine generator.
A popular program at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College is the electrical lineman apprenticeship program. The college is one of the only community colleges in the United States to teach the skill. Fresno City, San Diego City and Santiago Canyon colleges also offer certificates and apprentice programs for power lineman.
“We have the largest department on campus,” said Bill Elarton, department chair of the Construction, Design, Maintenance and Utilities program at Los Angeles Trade and Technical College. “Thirty-five percent of the students on our campus are in this department. We serve approximately 3,000 students each academic year and that means we have 27 full-time tenured instructors and 67 adjuncts to make sure we get those students the training they want and the companies that hire them needs.”
Elarton has taught at L.A. Trade-Tech since 1988 and said up until six or seven years ago his department’s curriculum didn’t change much. But with increased solar and wind energy collection and transmission and green technology demands his department has had to grow with the industry and the growing demands for more skilled workers. Elarton said green technology has provided a boost to his department, and not just the power transmission side. Trade-Tech has 17 degree and certificate pathways including construction, heating and air conditioning, water systems technology and welding, and each has a green technology component that provides students with an extra bit of experience making them more attractive to companies that are hiring.
Elarton said one of the college’s most popular programs is the electrical lineman apprenticeship program. The college is one of the only community colleges in the United States to teach the skill. Fresno City, San Diego City and Santiago Canyon colleges also offer certificates and apprentice programs for power lineman.
At Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, the lineman apprenticeship program requires 175 hours of study. A component of the course also includes preparation for civil service examinations that most municipal utility companies require.
The programs prepare students to take the entry-level certification for utility lineman apprentice programs with companies such as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric.
“We get calls from utility companies as far away as Maine looking for power lineman,” said Elarton, a former lineman himself before arriving at Los Angeles Trade-Tech 25 years ago. “We also work with the students to help them in their soft skills, to help them through the interview process and getting those lucrative jobs.”
One of those lucrative jobs was earned by former Los Angeles Trade-Tech student William Fields. Fields graduated in 2010 with an associate degree in electrical construction and maintenance and later attended the college's lineman apprenticeship program. Three years later, he said he's making six figures working for Asplundhi, an electrical sub-contractor that sends linemen out for Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Eletric and other California energy utilities.
Fields, 32, spent most of his 20's in a California prison. The former South Central gang member spent six years in prison but changed his life around after his 2007 parole by enrolling at Los Angeles Trade-Tech. Some 60 unites for the associate degree and another 175 hours of lineman training later and Fields is working long hours in the field but also loving it.
Los Angeles Trade-Technical College graduate William Fields, left, works on a variety of power transmission equipment and systems including this downtown Los Angeles light rail line. After just three years in the field he said he makes six figures a year and loves his job.
"I've been working on transmission lines, light rail, building towers, you name it," Fields said while in the middle of a long shift. "Right now I'm on a distribution crew that makes sure homes get the power from the overhead lines. It's hard work and long hours, I worked 80 hours last week, but I love it. I came out of the ghetto, got my training at Trade-Tech and now I'm making six figures."
Fields said some students see the wages that can be made as a lineman but don't realize the work that comes along with that large paycheck. "The money will come," Fields said. "But you have to work for it and this trade will wash you out if your heart isn't in it."
Fields said Los Angeles Trade-Tech gave him a broad base of the fundamentals and the degrees and certiciate gave him the background to be hired as an apprentice. Within a year, Fields said, he expects to be promoted to journeyman.
Gaddi Vasquez, Southern California Edison’s vice president of public affairs is a big proponent of the training programs offered at the California community colleges. As an alum of Santa Ana College, Vasquez knows it’s cheaper for companies to hire highly skilled workers trained at the community colleges than it is to pay for that training.
"We have been proud of the partnerships we have with the community colleges in our service area,” Vasquez said. "We are constantly looking to recruit and retain top talent and we often find that at the community colleges. That’s where you get life-long learning experiences that reach beyond specific coursework. (Community colleges) teach you discipline, to use your curiosity and to foster a love of learning.”
At Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, the Industrial Electrical Technology programs provide a broad working base from which to handle the many facets of industrial electricity as it relates to light and heavy industry, construction, and utility companies that provide electrical power. The programs meet the needs of those entering the trade for the first time and allow those already in the trade to improve their understanding of the craft.
The department teaches three programs and offers certificates and associate of science degrees in industrial electrical technology, electromechanical technology and instrumentation technology including fiber optics and network cabling.
Each program is designed to provide students with the skills needed to master current technology and gain employment in industry. Programs are divided into levels or "building blocks," allowing each student to meet their specific career goals. Credit may be earned for internship work experience and is strongly recommended for all three programs, said Elmano Alves, the programs’ only full-time tenured professor. A workforce and economic development partnership Chaffey College has with California Steel Inc. has been fruitful, Alves said.
"Each of our three programs are centered on the manufacturing sector and are built for those who will be maintaining and testing electrical systems and getting a deeper knowledge of the industry,” said Alves, who typically sees between 80 to 90 students each semester in the three programs. “Even before the economy dropped we saw increases in the demand for these skills. I think it’s a skill that’s pretty recession proof and that’s always a good thing.”