WACO, Texas—At first glance, the students throwing a football to each other from the tops of telephone poles may seem to be goofing around.
But the Texas State Technical College students aren't just having fun.
The Waco Tribune-Herald reports they're also subconsciously perfecting their balance and strength, developing a second nature for staying secure to a pole 40 feet off the ground, TSTC officials in Waco said.
The exercise is part of TSTC's Electrical Lineworker Technology program. The top-ranked program has attracted the attention of companies such as Austin Energy, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, Oncor and Pike Electric Corp. Like football coaches scouting a game, electric company representatives drop by each semester and track standout students they're hoping to recruit for a high-turnover industry, said Cheryl Lloyd, a TSTC program maintenance specialist.
Representatives from Austin Energy, the city of Austin's electric utility, which serves more than 490,000 customer accounts and more than a million residents, have even done interviews onsite at TSTC, said Craig Ptomey, Austin Energy electric services delivery program manager.
"Pretty much any student that finishes that program at TSTC, if they want a job in this industry, they'll be able to get a job," Ptomey said. "It's a very good school, very good value."
Universities.com recently named Texas State Technical College as having this year's best Electrical Lineworker Technology program.
Universities.com recently named TSTC as having the state's best electrical lineworker technology program for 2018. Besides its Waco flagship campus, TSTC also offers the Electrical Lineworker Technology program in Fort Bend County and Marshall.
Several students who are about to graduate with job offers already in hand said they can understand why the program gets those plaudits.
Lee Krumnow, 21, of Riesel, was graduating this month with an associate degree and his commercial license. Krumnow said he initially discovered the program after a friend told him about it. He said he initially thought the frequent heights might be an issue but he quickly overcame that fear.
"I'm an adrenaline junkie," Krumnow said. "I used to race dirt bikes and stuff and jump all kinds of stuff. This is kind of right there next to it and I love it. I'm not really an inside person. You're out in rain, snow, shine, you're always going to climb."
Krumnow said the football exercise has helped give him the training needed for hanging onto a pole even in stormy weather.
"You're switching around from leg to leg," he said. "It helps your balance and it's fun."
Eric Carithers, TSTC's statewide Distribution and Industrial Electrical Systems department chair, said he wants not only to maintain the top state ranking but shoot for best in the nation.
"TSTC never wants to be complacent as a technical college, as technology is changing every second," Carithers said in a statement.
There are 80 certificate and associate degree students in the program this fall, and the program accepts 35 new students each semester.
Part of TSTC's campus includes an outdoor section dedicated to the electrical lineworker students. Under instructor guidance, students learn to climb various telephone poles and transition around obstacles on the pole as they go, Lloyd said. Wearing at least 30 pounds of equipment, the students use two belts wrapped around the pole, along with spikes in their shoes, to steadily navigate from the ground to the top of a pole.
"This is really intense on the body," she said. "Not just the upper and lower, but the whole body, your core to keep balance."
She said the belts used to secure lineworkers to the pole ensure no one is in danger of falling.
"At any given time if they were to let go with both their hands, both their feet, they're falling they are going to hang up there," Lloyd said.
Students practice a lot of "up/downs" as a 60-foot pole can sway above the ground even without wind, she said. The football practice also ensures the students are focusing, as whoever misses or drops the ball, must go all the way back to the ground to get the ball, she said.
"That way, whenever they are out in a bad storm, the weather's bad and they can't really see, their fingers are cold, their feet are cold, and they've been up there for half an hour, they are still OK it's just second nature. They are going to go up that poll and come back down," she said.
Each class places a heavy emphasis on safety, she said.
"Nothing that they work on has electricity on it. It's all dead but we treat it like it's live," she said. "Safety is paramount. Every class they have has safety in it."
The demand for qualified lineworkers is high, Lloyd said.
"Right now, we're going through a phase where a lot of the industry is full of people about to retire," she said. "There's also a lot of places where there wasn't utility before and now we're expanding. With progress comes expansion. You expand and then you need electricity."
Ptomey said the demand for good lineworkers is strong across the industry, and Austin Energy has felt it as well. Ptomey said the company learned about TSTC's program roughly three years ago and did a site visit to see how the classes were taught and what the campus looked like. Representatives spoke to a class in summer 2016 and then performed interviews on site, he said. They hired six people that first recruitment effort, he said.
There's another lineworker school in Denton, but the company prefers to scout students from TSTC, he said. Austin Energy also in 2011 helped Austin Community College develop its lineworker program and continues to maintain a partnership with the school, he said.
Austin Energy representatives visit multiple community events throughout Austin working to point those interested to continuing education for the lineworker program, said Diane Kerlin, Austin Energy human resources adviser. But nothing beats word of mouth, she said. Many who join the industry do so because a friend or family member have worked as lineman, she said.
"It's a brotherhood," she said. "This is definitely going to be a very hard-to-fill position and very in demand for many years. They will not have a hard time finding a job."
Jordan Tatro, 19, of Moody, said he's learned through his courses that life as a lineman means every day is different. It's a quality of the job he looks forward too, Tatro said.
Tatro, who also graduates this month, said he has several possible jobs lined up. Tatro said he's come a long way since first starting the program. It originally took him 45 minutes just to reach the top of a telephone pole, he said. Now he can climb up and down safely in 10 minutes, he said.
Oncor spokesperson Briana Monsalve said TSTC provides an in-depth program and produces well-rounded lineman upon graduation along with the school's impressive facility. Monsalve said Oncor keeps an eye on students in TSTC's program as previous hires have produced a skilled workforce, nimble, and adaptive to the changing needs of the industry.
"They have a good foundation and understanding of what it takes and what they need to do," she said.
Oncor works to take a proactive role with technical colleges to ensure the institutes of higher education continue to provide a pipeline of talent for the industry. Oncor representatives serve on TSTC's advisory board to help the program's curriculum stay current, she said.
"We're really about being a part of the program in helping with the development of the future workforce," she said. "We're committed to the fostering of a really well-trained workforce."
Junior Soto, 21, of Clifton, said climbing was second nature to him when he showed up at TSTC, having been a regular tree-climber as a kid.
Soto said he learned about the program through a family member and began to research the opportunities associated with becoming a lineman.
Soto, who has one more semester before graduating, said learning to safely navigate the power lines and other obstructions on the pole was a challenge. But now, he said, he can easily work his way around.
"You just want to be able to get up and down the pole safely you've got to be in some kind of physical shape to go up and down because it gets tiring," he said.