Trenton’s Southeast Lineman Training Center is adding another line. Of training, that is. As of March 30, SLTC, one of only two vocational colleges for electrical lineworkers in the nation, will launch a brand-new curriculum, this one for workers in the telecommunications field. The school will expand physically to accommodate the additional program, with construction of a new campus segment up Highway 11 beginning within the next week or so. “We find a lot of the students that drop our electrical lineworker program usually drop from one of two reasons, for the most part—either a fear of heights or a fear of electricity,” said P.J. Nardy, SLTC’s executive vice president. “This really gives them an opportunity outside of that.” Lineworkers in the communications industry, explained Nardy, do similar work to that of utility linemen, climbing structures and rigging lines, in their case, fiber optic and coaxial cable. The difference is that they do so closer to the ground—20 feet high is the average—and in the absence of charged power lines. From an economic perspective, there’s another similarity: “One of the things that’s so interesting about the industry is that it parallels the utility industry in the fact that the demands are so high for employment,” said Nardy. “It’s a great career field."
Telecom lineworker graduates can expect job offers from primary communications companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Charter, as well as from contractors and subcontractors to the big players, said Nardy. “Dicom is a big company that’s been pushing us,” he said. “They’ve got 32 subsidiaries around the country that are in dire need of qualified graduates of a program like this.”
College founder George Nelson said it was in fact pressure from the telecom industry that had led the school to expand into communications. “We’d been approached by some large contracting companies in the country that do work for Verizon and AT&T, and they voiced their concerns to us about filling their employment needs,” he said. “That’s why we’ve done this.”
“And they’ve been trying to hire our graduates,” said Nardy.
Nardy said that some SLTC grads do go to work for the telecoms but: “It’s usually a stopgap for them until an opportunity opens up for them in the utility industry.”
Nelson and Nardy described the training for communications line work as similar to electrical lineman training but not as in-depth. “They’ll get their certifications in OSHA 10, CPR/first aid and flagging, defensive driving course,” said Nardy. “They’ll do field construction as well.”
The course is shorter than the electrical lineman course, five weeks as opposed to 15, and costs less, $6950 as opposed to $14,155. Nardy noted that that total includes not just tuition but $2150 of trade-required implements. “That’s everything they need to go to work in the industry,” he said. “It’s the best tools and equipment.”
He said beginning annual base salaries for entry-level telecom workers run from $28,500 low-end to $81,000 high, with an average of $54,5000. Those numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, said Nardy, with the broad range mostly due to geography. Wages in the Southeast tend to run lower than in the Northeast, but so do cost of living and taxes. The same numbers for electrical lineworkers, as listed on SLTC’s website, are $33,675 to $82,451, with an average of $58,032.
The physical requirements to enter the telecom program are about the same as for the lineman curriculum, said Nardy—able to pass a Department of Transportation physical, climb, bend and lift up to 75 pounds. “It’s going to be maybe someone who doesn’t have that interest in working around energized power lines or working in the utility industry, but definitely somebody who enjoys the outdoors, somebody who wants to work with their hands,” he said. “Somebody who in five and a half weeks can have a guaranteed income higher than most four-year college graduates, with a fraction of the debt.”
The first few classes for telecom workers will be small, limited to 20 applicants. This year, those classes begin on March 30, May 24, July 20, Sept. 7 and Oct. 28.
How big will the program eventually grow? “We’ll let the industry determine that,” said George Nelson. “We don’t want to put a cap on it any more than we want to put a cap on this one. I think at one point we thought if we could get 60 to 70 students in this program it would be a lot, but the industry demanded. They recognized the value of hiring our graduates, so we increased our enrollment.”
Current enrollment at the lineman school is 220 a session, up from a first class in February 2000 of 15 students. To meet its growing attendance, the school has expanded physically several times, most recently in 2012 to a north campus on the opposite side of US 11 from the original installation.
The new expansion, also north of main campus, will ultimately include, as well as the pole-training yard going up now, an 8-to-9000-square-foot building for classroom and administrative offices. Construction of that building will begin this summer, said Nardy and Nelson. For the first few classes, though, telecom students will commute from coursework at main campus to hands-on (and on-pole) work in the new area.
The SLTC faculty has not been supplemented. “We’ve trained up and certified existing faculty,” said Nelson. “They’ve usually already worked in the field.”
With Dade’s rural location and circa-16,000 population, the lineman school has made a sizable economic impact on the county with its thrice-yearly infusion of 200-plus students, a largely young, largely male infusion that eats hungrily at Dade restaurants, fills up at Dade gas stations and rents living space in Dade lodgings. At the last Trenton City Commission meeting, sprucing up the town for families visiting to attend SLTC’s three graduations a year was discussed as one reason for a planned city cleanup this spring.