October 18, 2022
Starkville Utilities employees Randall Chriswell and Orlando Smith achieved a major career milestone earlier this year when they became certified linemen.
As for many in-demand professions, the career advantages for certified line workers include job stability, competitive pay and benefits, and opportunities for advancement. In most cases, that’s where the similarities end.
“Line work takes a certain type of person,” said Chriswell. “It takes discipline to follow safety protocols that are in place to protect us and the public. At the end of the day, that’s where you get a sense of accomplishment—making sure everyone goes home safely.”
“After I climbed the first pole, my legs and shins were swollen for about a week,” said Smith. “It was very strenuous. But after I started catching on, I became hungry for more knowledge and fell more in love with it every day. It’s not work if you love what you’re doing.”
Starkville Utilities currently employs 10 linemen and four apprentice linemen who are responsible for maintaining 190 miles of distribution lines and associated equipment.
“The performance of our linemen has a direct impact on our reliability rate, which is one of the highest in Mississippi,” said Edward Kemp, general manager of Starkville Utilities. “They make sure that safety is the focus on every job and ingrained in every employee. In many important ways, Starkville Utilities’ customers benefit from their work ethic and professionalism.”
Considering the hazards and physical demands of the profession, it’s no surprise that the journey to certification requires a significant investment of time. Apprentices must complete a minimum of 7,000 hours of on-the-job training along with classroom instruction, labs and testing—a process that can take up to six years.
In addition, apprentice candidates must complete an intensive, week-long pre-assessment workshop to determine if they’re suited for the physical and mental demands of the job. Starkville Utilities partners with the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association to provide standardized training for employees, from pre-screening to final certification.
“Every time they complete a level of training, our in-house review committee has to sign off before they can advance,” said David Leal, lead line foreman for Starkville Utilities. “Even though they pass TVPPA’s tests, they must demonstrate to us that they can finish jobs safely and completely. We won’t sign off if there are deficiencies.”
Along with their fellow linemen, Chriswell and Smith perform a variety of specialized tasks to keep power flowing to homes and businesses, such as building overhead and underground facilities, making repairs and connecting new services.
Another aspect of their job is storm response, which requires linemen to follow an on-call schedule to ensure that crews are available at all hours to respond to outages, when necessary. While promptly restoring power for customers is the goal, crews make a point to prioritize safety in all stages of the response effort.
“A couple years ago there was a bad storm in Columbus, my hometown,” Smith said. “We worked 12- and 14-hour days, and you had to stay on your toes. You can’t let time pressure take over, because that’s when mistakes happen. There is no rushing.”
“The job is more complicated than riding out and seeing wood and wire,” Chriswell said. “There’s a lot to learn about the power system. It can be intimidating at first, but when you gain the capabilities to troubleshoot and get power back on for customers, that’s always rewarding.”
As more line workers retire from the industry, utilities are stepping up efforts to hire and retain qualified employees in a field that has grown increasingly competitive. At the same time, apprentice coursework and certification requirements have become more rigorous, with a heightened focus on mathematics and electrical principles.
“Linemen understand that they must invest considerable time and energy, as well as focus and determination, to reach their career goals,” Kemp said. “Starkville Utilities also invests time and resources into their professional development and career advancement. Utimately, it’s an investment in our community that pays off with high-quality service and long-term system sustainability.”
Starkville Utilities is a municipally owned and operated electric and water utility, serving more than 14,000 residences, businesses and industries in Starkville as well as the state’s largest institution of higher learning, Mississippi State University.