SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — On a March morning, a dozen of the estimated 200,000 new workers needed for New York’s energy transition inch their way up poles with no power lines at the top.
Down below, electric utility veterans coach their young charges through a learning process in which competence builds confidence.
Bore into the poles with power drills. Assemble the hardware. Rig a hoist for whatever is too heavy to carry up. Hang the cross-arms.
Look down — and get very comfortable with that view.
In a few years’ time, these trainees will be journeyman lineworkers, qualified to climb poles alone and reconnect wires sending thousands of volts of electricity to the community below them, an energy source intended to increasingly replace the use of fossil fuels for everyday functions such as driving, space heating and industrial processes.
But today, they work with exactly zero kilovolts. They won’t even get to the top of the poles.
“This is only their seventh day in school, so we really only go up about halfway,” one of the instructors tells a visitor.
And so it goes — a few people at a time, one day at a time, for years at a time.
At that pace, with unemployment low and the skilled trades already in high demand, assembling an army of workers to carry out the clean energy transition seems a daunting proposition.
The fact that it is happening in so many places at once helps.
The U.S. is expected to create millions of jobs if most aspects of everyday life are electrified and the means of generating that electricity transitions away from fossil fuels, as envisioned by many federal, state and local leaders.
The World Resources Institute projects that a transition to clean energy will translate into a net increase of 2.3 million U.S. jobs from 2020 to 2035, along with 5.7 million additional jobs if the country creates a robust domestic manufacturing sector to supply the transition.
New York has one of the most aggressive climate protection roadmaps in the country, and its Climate Action Council estimates the transition to clean energy resources will create up to 211,000 jobs through 2030 while eliminating 22,000 others.
By the time it hits its 2050 target date for carbon neutrality, New York expects to see 269,000 new positions in four primary sectors closely affected by the transition: electricity, fuels, buildings and transportation.
Many of those will not be highly skilled jobs, and some of the highly skilled jobs will not require skills specific to a particular type of clean energy. Nor will the transition happen all at once.
But given the number of skilled workers needed and the learning curve for the jobs, efforts already are underway to ramp up existing recruitment and training.
During that morning in late March, one cluster of students was taking the first steps in a multiyear process to become fully qualified line workers at National Grid’s training facility in Schenectady.
Another cluster, already in their second year, was working to progress further along that career path, erecting a new pole a hundred yards away.
The little school has big neighbors that have had a prominent role in the design and manufacture of the power grid: General Electric’s original main factory campus and its world research headquarters each stand about two miles away in opposite directions.
The students and teachers at the National Grid facility are where the rubber meets the road, keeping power flowing to all the heat pumps and EV chargers being installed across New York.
Twice in March, the trainees and their mentors had mobilized to restore electricity to tens of thousands of customers as late-winter snowstorms socked the region.
More than five years of classroom training and field experience is mandated before a lineworker is fully qualified to work without supervision on lines carrying up to 69,000 volts.
The reason is simple: They need to get it exactly right.
In the least-bad scenario, a mistake can lead to a blackout. In the worst case, someone is injured or killed.
The school is run by a mix of National Grid managers, veterans of the trade working under contract and master electricians with IBEW Local 97.
One of the contract trainers is Bruce Selby, who retired after a long career as a National Grid lineman and now teaches a related course at a nearby community college.
The most frequent barrier for green trainees is not concern about potentially lethal voltages but fear of heights. Selby has several strategies to get the students up the pole and comfortable. One of them usually works.
“Everyone starts at the same level,” Selby said. “No one accelerates over another one. That builds a camaraderie — we all rise together. It’s all baby steps, so everyone gets comfortable at every level. And at every level we talk, so we ease our fears. I’ll climb right up there with them, because they’ll see, ‘If this old guy can do it, I can do it.’
“As we climb and they become proficient at it and competent, they become confident.”
He added: “Doesn’t work for everybody — some people mentally turn off at 10 feet.”
The frightened trainee may say they’re OK, but Selby can tell if they are not.
“How their body position is, that tells me a lot. If they’re going like this around the pole” — he bear-hugs an imaginary utility pole — “that’s a height thing. They’ll be real good, [then] 5, 6, 10 feet, all of the sudden we see that.”
One-on-one coaching can overcome that fear. If it does not, the trainee must find another specialty, but not necessarily another employer. National Grid will train them for other jobs.
Not one of the 35,500 miles of gas lines the utility maintains is up in the air, for example.
The New York Power Authority (NYPA) has an apprenticeship program like those operated by National Grid and other utilities, with a gradual increase of qualifications built through classroom learning, lab training and supervised field work.
And NYPA too has a high washout rate due to fear of heights.
“It’s not for everybody. There’s no shame in not being able to go up 100 feet and lean back in a working strap,” said Bill Senior, a regional manager and senior vice president.
“That’s not a comfortable feeling.”
Management and union jointly decide if a trainee is not fit for the line job, Senior said.
Fortunately for those who do wash out, NYPA also needs people who will work with both feet on the ground, as a growing number of small-scale distributed clean energy resources supplement large central power plants.
“There’ll be some need for technicians because we are putting a lot of substations online,” Senior said. “In upstate New York, I see more need for electricians and electronic and relay techs to man these substations.”
NYPA Chief Operating Officer Joe Kessler said the nature of the energy transition is altering the planning and strategy utilities have traditionally used.
With their much smaller sizes and lower capacity factors, new renewable assets require much more planning, construction and maintenance than conventional generation, Kessler said.
The supply chain for material is more worrisome right now than the supply of potential employees, he said, but the competition for employees with certain skillsets is becoming keen.
Planning, analysis and compliance are areas of particular concern, as they underpin much of the energy transition.
“That competency is in short supply,” Kessler said. “Everybody’s competing against each other for that particular competency. We can’t be successful and Bill’s team can’t be successful unless those people are around to support them as well.”
New York policy makers are aware of the need to find more people to do the work, and workforce development has been a central part of planning to implement the state’s landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019.
However, some complicating factors arise.
The U.S. labor force participation rate — the percentage of the working-age population that is working or actively seeking work — peaked at 67.3% in early 2000 and gradually declined to 63.3% by February 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.
In February 2023, it stood at 62.6% nationally but just 60.6% in New York.
Worse, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates New York’s population declined by 2.6% from 2020 to 2022 — or more than a half-million people, the most by number and percentage of any state. (The nation’s population grew an estimated 0.6% over the same period.)
As a result, New York’s February unemployment rate — the percentage of people not employed but actively seeking employment — was only 4.5% statewide, and well below 4% for large swaths of the state outside New York City.
In this environment, state officials planning the energy transition predict a net need in just seven years for 189,000 new workers for everything from erecting wind turbines and rewiring buildings to driving trucks between job sites and keeping track of the accounting for it all.
Essential to accomplishing this will be reaching out to the population of New Yorkers who are unemployed or underemployed. That dovetails neatly with a central theme in the state’s energy transition roadmap: Extending job training and apprenticeships to disadvantaged communities, where unemployment is higher and the jobs that do exist are often low-skill or low-wage.
NYPA has an assortment of workforce development tools, and its Environmental Justice Program specifically targets historically disadvantaged students for career exposure.
NYPA also is a founding sponsor of the Northland Workforce Training Center, where 60% of the nearly 900 students are non-white, roughly the same percentage as the population of Buffalo, where it is based.
There is a deliberate effort to recruit students of color, said Northland CEO Stephen Tucker, who noted that people of color are under-represented in the skilled trades and production work, and women even more so, “despite those careers offering family-sustaining wages and pathways to the middle class.”
“We’re located in east Buffalo; we’re right in the community. So our strategy is to have a very aggressive outreach and awareness campaign,” Tucker said.
“We have a team of people who go out to schools, the churches, the community centers, the various festivals. They’re raising awareness that these careers exist, because the majority of people don’t know that you can be an electrician and make $100,000 a year or eventually own your own business.”
The staff is continually reminded of the challenges facing young adults in the surrounding communities — transportation, childcare, housing, mental health — and continually works to get them over those hurdles.
“We embed the delivery of intense wraparound services with the delivery of technical training,” Tucker said.
“We try to mitigate most of the traditional barriers that will keep people from enrolling in and completing post-secondary education. Because of that we’ve been able to achieve higher-than-average completion rates for community colleges.”
Northland occupies a repurposed circa-1911 machine-and-tool works in a neighborhood that is quintessentially Rust Belt — older middle-class housing stock on small lots surrounding former industrial sites. The crumbling Curtiss-Wright engine factory stands just a hundred yards from Northland, vacant since the 1990s.
But Northland is envisioned as a catalyst for change, a metaphoric full circle that is training young people for the high-tech blue-collar jobs of tomorrow amid the ruins of the blue-collar landscape of yesterday.
“They were in the DNA of Buffalo. But the factories closed, and the jobs dried up,” Tucker said. “This area was dormant for about 25 or 30 years.”
Graduates of Northland’s two-year Electrical Construction and Maintenance program are qualified for entry-level jobs or advanced training.
“They’ll be ready to enroll in an apprenticeship but not start at the beginning,” Tucker said. “They’ll have two years of education behind him. They could test into year two of an apprenticeship program. Or they could go right to work in industry or as a residential electrician.”
Next up for Northland is a curriculum to meet the needs of the energy transition.
“Moving forward, we are planning to launch a clean energy technology lab,” Tucker said, with training in battery storage, microgrid technology, renewable natural gas, EVs, EV chargers and building maintenance.
“We hope to have that deployed within the next year or so.”
Melanie Littlejohn, National Grid vice president of customer and community engagement, said the company cannot follow a one-size-fits-all strategy in recruiting for everyday operation — let alone for the energy transition. The utility’s three regions — upstate and downstate New York and Massachusetts — are only a few hours apart but different in many ways, from weather to terrain to economy.
“Our initial focus is really on how are we building awareness that these positions exist in the first place, and what are they, and how do you see your talents tied to them,” she said.
To build a workforce pipeline, the utility partners with an array of agencies, including high school vocational programs, two-year colleges, four-year colleges and educational opportunity centers.
New York’s two-year colleges design some of their career skills programs in partnership with industry, creating a clear path to employment.
“Junior colleges are so critically important to this part of this work,” Littlejohn said.
The lineworkers training in Schenectady are just one sliver of the utility’s personnel needs.
Littlejohn speaks of “the power behind the switch” — all the financial personnel, engineers, control room operators, analysts, and others who also keep the utility running, without ever climbing a pole.
Matthew Barnett, National Grid’s vice president of New York electric operations, said the utility cannot predict the numbers and skillsets it will need as the energy transition progresses, so it is running a series of five- and 10-year scenarios to have plans ready as the picture comes into clearer focus.
It is a more proactive stance to anticipated needs, as opposed to a reactive strategy based on existing needs.
The vast number of public, private and commercial EV chargers expected to be installed in the next decade is a perfect example.
“We’re looking at how do we need to build at the right pace to stay in front of the customer need, so we’re not the barrier,” Barnett said.
“This won’t all be done by hiring on National Grid personnel; we have contractor partnerships out there,” he said.
The term “linemen” may sound archaic in the inclusive modern era, but almost all lineworkers are men.
Niagara Mohawk hired Patty Orr as apparently the first female line worker in the nation more than 40 years ago and its corporate successor, National Grid, has hired only about a half-dozen since.
Women are welcome and encouraged to apply, but not many do. It is a physically challenging job.
The tools for managing those demands have improved over the years and made the job safer, but a lineman still needs to be able to manipulate a 100-pound wire by hand while leaning out of a bucket or hanging from a harness.
Keith Kilgallon, senior instructor in Schenectady, said there are two places where most student dropouts happen: Right at the beginning, if they cannot deal with heights, and about two years in, when they start having to lift wires into position.
The handful of women who have come through the Schenectady school have done very well, he said. All but one possessed or developed the requisite confidence, strength and competence to graduate. But very few have applied.
There is a bit of mirth here and there at the training facility — the simulated city street where apprentice gas workers learn how to fix leaks and put out fires is named “Leak Lane.”
But the curriculum and instruction are as serious as the subject would suggest.
Kilgallon hoisted the door of an oversized garage to reveal a jungle of wires, transformers and switches right at eye level. There’s little elbow room and zero margin for error.
“We actually do energize this up to 5,000 volts,” he said. “If you close something that doesn’t phase out in the field, you’re going to cause an enormous outage. You have to synchronize the feeders together. So we can simulate how to synchronize the feeders in here, on primary voltage and secondary voltage.”
Students are forbidden to be inside without an instructor, or to outnumber the instructor by more than 5-1.
But with proper oversight, it is a great place to learn, Kilgallon said.
“I’ve only been here 20 years, and now we’re getting to be the old guys! I can remember going through climbing school; it seems like only yesterday. … It’s pretty much a mentoring program or an apprenticeship program, where somebody is really talking you and walking you through it,” he said.
On the opposite end of the career ladder is Landon Marks, three years out of high school. He enrolled in the Electrical Construction and Maintenance program at Hudson Valley Community College, then went to work for National Grid in November 2022.
For the first six months, Marks is a probationary employee and “helper,” authorized to control traffic, load trucks, watch and learn — but not to work with any live wires.
Marks is comfortable with heights, having completed climbing school at the college.
“So, I already have free-climbed and certified in all that before, but now that I’m a National Grid employee I have to do it again,” he said. “I’m not going to say I lacked fear when I started, but you get used to trusting your equipment.”
The fear of falling fades behind respect for electricity, a clarity of purpose and focus that comes with proximity to deadly voltages.
“You don’t even realize you’re on the pole anymore,” Marks said.
He quotes Selby, who was his instructor at the college as well: “Climbing is like the transportation to the job. The job’s at the top of the pole, the climbing shouldn’t be the job.”
Marks plans to make a career as a lineman, just like his father, Ronnie Marks, who still works for National Grid out of Troy.
Electricity looks like a growth field for decades to come, he said. “One hundred percent.”
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