Two line technician candidates drove to Omaha from Louisiana, where they were helping with mutual aid efforts. They made the long trip north hoping to land a job with OPPD by participating in the utility’s fifth boot camp.
The boot camp is held at OPPD’s Elkhorn Service Center and conducted by the utility’s Joint Apprentice Training Committee (JATC).
“Those two sacrificed some good money working down there to come up here and compete in our boot camp,” said Lee O’Neal, director of Transmission & Distribution Construction at the Elkhorn Center. “It shows how much people want to come and work here.”
The two drove back after the boot camp to continue helping with recovery efforts following Hurricane Laura.
On a recent cool and sunny September day, 14 line apprentices went through different scenarios involving line work and were judged on their performance.
The scenarios included an intense evaluation of proper climbing techniques and skill, and tearing down and then rebuilding a four-pole, three-phase line to evaluated the candidates’ knowledge of the work and how they respond to coaching. They also had to perform a hurt man rescue using a mannequin hanging off a pole.
“We tell them there isn’t a more important job to learn than that,” said Tim Potts, area supervisor at OPPD’s Blair Service Center. “And we tell them we hope they go their entire careers without ever having to do it.”
In August, OPPD held an earlier boot camp for journeyman line technicians. The utility hired seven from that event. The new journeymen help fill a current staffing need, while the apprentices they hope to hire fill an emerging need.
“These guys are here for a shortage we will need to fill in four years,” O’Neal said. “We will have retirements coming up in four years that this group will help us fill.”
OPPD started the boot camp in 2011 after seeing how Westar Energy in Kansas used a similar format to hire its linemen.
This year, with COVID-19, the line techs and panel practiced social distancing. Due to the line techs’ work being outdoors and the type of work they do, masks are not required. OPPD’s plant and line workers practice social distancing whenever the job allows, but the nature of their work means that isn’t always possible.
A panel of OPPD employees with current and past field experience evaluates the candidates and decides who to hire. Before the camp starts, the candidates apply online and are screened for qualifications. Then they complete a taped interview process. OPPD selected 45 candidates to compete in the three-day boot camp, where they simulated storm-related outage restoration, among other skilled work.
Potts said the judges observe how the candidates climb, their attitude and initiative, and how they react in pressure situations. From the ground, the judges, field workers and supervisors yell up at the participants, coaching and sometimes even heckling them. This lets the judges see how they react while concentrating on their task.
“We use the boot camp to determine the quality of the employee, what their experience level is and how they will fit in before we hire them,” Potts said. “We want to see how they react and put them through different intense scenarios through the day. It teaches them teamwork skills and working together, and looking out for your fellow linemen.”
The group of new hires will transfer to three different service centers in the metro area on a six month rotation for the first three years of their apprenticeship. Doing so familiarizes the new line techs to different areas of OPPD’s system and gets them working with different crews.
During their third year, the apprentices are placed at a home center in the metro area. They will spend their fourth and final year at that center, prior to becoming a journeyman line tech.
Along with the daily crew work, the apprentices also complete a series of tests to graduate to the rank of journeyman. That process takes four years.
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