Mike Shephard had been an apprentice line tech only a few months in 2017 when he and his fellow trainees underwent baptism by fire. On second thought, make that by hurricane.
Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm, had left more than 145,000 OUC customers without electricity, and that meant all line techs — from apprentice to journeyman — would be working virtually nonstop until power was completely restored.
“It was eye opening,” Shephard said of his Irma recovery experience. “Sixteen-hour days. It was make or break,” as in if 112-hour weeks of working in blazing heat and muggy humidity didn’t break the 25-year-old, he knew he would make it as a line tech.
Now a Line Technician III who’s preparing to attain Line Technician II status, Shephard and his 100-plus power line coworkers at OUC are part of a statewide fraternity that the Florida House of Representatives, in 2012, deemed deserving of a day of gratitude.
August 26 is Florida Lineworker Appreciation Day, a 24-hour thank you to the first people everyone wants to see after their power goes out. The official designation is a homage to a Lakeland Electric line tech who was killed on the job in 2002.
“You have to be super-dedicated to do this job,” said James Alexander, Senior Electric Technical Trainer, who worked his way up from apprentice to the pinnacle of the profession, journeyman. “You get called out at all hours of the night and work in miserable weather conditions wearing heavy protective gear. But you get a great sense of satisfaction seeing our OUC customers lights come back on.”
Consider how long it takes a beginner line tech to climb to the top of an OUC utility pole: There’s a six-month apprenticeship, a ground-level job in a support role, followed by a two-year Line Technician III stint that includes working with energized secondary wires. With Line Technician II status comes higher voltages and a higher perch on a pole. Four years later, it’s on to Line Technician I, the highest position, literally.
After 18 months, a Line Technician I can “top out” as journeyman, a certification of competency for handling any level of work on the distribution system with or without a crew.
That’s eight years of working days, nights, weekends, training, then training some more, and taking and passing tests. It takes less time to become a lawyer.
James said the line tech job has gotten easier on the body thanks to battery-powered tools, better safety protocols, advancements in technology, and more attention being paid to hydration and sun exposure.
Techs with 30-plus years of experience are not unusual at OUC. Spencer Barnes started at the bottom of the pole in 1987; today’s he’s a Line Supervisor with four, five-member crews working under him.
Barnes has lived by a simple credo during his 32 years here: “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ in line work,” he said, “because the end result is you have to get the power back on for the customer. Helping customers, that’s what gives me the most fulfillment.”
About a year ago, Barnes thought he was ready to retire, only to change his mind two weeks before his retirement party. He realized he wasn’t ready to walk away.
“I’m not here for the money,” he said. “I’m here for the guys, to make sure they’re OK. I’m kind of a mother hen. My drive and passion are to leave the system in good hands.”
It is, thanks to the dedication of OUC’s line workers.