HAYS, Kansas—The view from a Midwest Energy bucket truck 62 feet above the barren corn fields in Ellis, Kansas, is not for the faint of heart or height in early January.
Steady nerves and hands are an absolute must to work on the utility poles stretching for miles in every direction.
One careless touch could kill or maim instantly.
For this reason, the company believes employee safety, training, and a thick skin are essential since working in subzero winter weather is the norm.
About two weeks ago, foreman Travis Dinges and line crew endured minus 40-degree temperatures addressing power outages in a fierce snowstorm.
Working in short rotations, they each took turns in the bucket and boom that carried them aloft, braving numbing wind chill and fatigue until all the lights were back on.
The situation was no less challenging in December 2021 when 100-mile-per-hour winds toppled more than 800 utility poles, knocking out power across the company’s extensive coverage area.
It’s been 17 years since Dinges joined Midwest Energy as a power line worker.
He can confidently say it’s a job like no other.
“When I was a kid, one of my friends and I went hunting. He mentored me in the line field,” said Dinges, 42, taking a break in a company pickup truck on a mild afternoon.
“Good pay for the area. Good benefits. Stable job. I’m not worried about having a job.”
And there are plenty of suitable applicants at Midwest Energy, too, says director of communications and government affairs Mike Morley.
“Which is a little peculiar because we serve some of the most rural areas in the United States,” Morley said.
Morley said power line work isn’t just a job—it’s a calling to serve the community.
“What I see as a common thread is a tremendous work ethic,” Morley told The Epoch Times.
“These guys don’t mess around with storm restoration in some of the most difficult weather circumstances imaginable.”
However, in some parts of the country, power companies report a shortage of line workers, while industry experts project nationwide demand to increase by 9 percent by 2026.
That’s 25,000 new jobs over the next four years.
In Michigan, the Lowell Corporation said a statewide decline in power line workers is mainly due to retirements and hiring slowdowns during the Great Recession.
“Some public utilities and private contractors are paying incentives or daily bonuses to attract and retain workers, raising costs for companies and ultimately consumers,” according to the Lowell Corporation’s blog.
Given these factors, the Michigan Workforce Development Agency said the state needed to increase the number of line workers from 2,470 to 3,470 to keep pace with the growing demand.
Across the United States, an estimated 120,400 linemen are working the power grid in an industry experiencing steady 3 percent annual growth.
The national grid includes an estimated 180 million utility poles and 450,000 miles of power lines to service more than 318 million citizens.
Career placement organization Lineman Central estimates there will be thousands of power line job openings “in 2023 alone.”
“Each year over the past five years has seen gradual increases in lineman job openings. Some companies hiring the most linemen in 2023 include Pacificorp, Henkenls and McCoy, Ameren, and Excel Energy.”
New legislation funneling millions of dollars into energy infrastructure projects has also driven the demand for line workers.
“Where we as the industry are feeling the pinch the most are the rural areas,” Lineman Central spokesman Noah Stoll told The Epoch Times.
“But where consumers will start to notice over the next couple of years are the little issues in rural America that will take longer and longer to repair.”
Lineman Central and its 200 industry partners recently began tapping into the increased enrollment in power line climbing schools and apprenticeship courses, hoping to build on the new talent.
These programs are the “lifeblood of the industry,” Stoll said. “Without new people joining the trade, we will soon be retired out into decimation.”
“Simply put, more line workers are retiring from the trade now than joining.”
Based in Hays, Kansas, Midwest Energy implemented recruiting and apprenticeship programs several years ago, anticipating a potential wave in retirements industrywide.
During the pandemic, the company also placed many critical back-ordered parts to avert supply chain issues.
As a result, hiring efforts have been relatively seamless despite two retirement cycles over the past decade or so, says Fred Taylor, Midwest Energy’s vice president of operations.
“The first one was a little bit painful for us 10 or 15 years ago. What we’ve done since then is started hiring early two or three years before somebody retires,” Taylor said.
Midwest Energy also created an internal student training program for its 16 power line crews.
“Our workload is going up,” Taylor told The Epoch Times. “We don’t anticipate [shortages] with our workforce because of the practices we have in place.”
Taylor said young people could skip four years in college to get a successful, high-paying job in a burgeoning trade like power line work.
The message seems to resonate—”at least in this part of the country,” he said.
Moreover, an experienced line worker can expect to earn between $93,000 and $114,000 yearly, which aligns with Midwest Energy’s salary offerings.
Midwest Energy is a gas and electricity cooperative established in 1939 and governed by a nine-member board.
The company serves around 93,000 customers in 40 central and western Kansas counties.
In 2020, the company experienced moderate growth despite the pandemic, listing nearly $211 million in total revenues.
Dinges, who became a lineman with the company in 2005, said job satisfaction among power line workers remains high regardless of the demands and risks.
Each year 42 of every 100,000 linemen die on the job, making it one of the most dangerous professions next to loggers and farm laborers.
While a typical shift for a power line worker at Midwest Energy is eight hours, Dinges said 12 or 16-hour shifts are standard during the winter and can be taxing.
“The longest I ever worked in any period was 36 hours. It keeps rolling to where we’re trying to get customers’ [power] back on,” he told The Epoch Times.
Because working long hours with high-voltage wires in bad weather poses significant risks, the company takes job safety seriously.
“It is the part of our job that definitely could kill the easiest,” Dinges said. “The industry is as safe as you make it.
“Some companies are not safe. I would hate to have one of our employees go to a company like that. They care more about the dollar than safety.”
Dinges pointed out a utility pole and said, “This line above us is 34,500 high-voltage. We can’t [work with] that hot. We can use fiberglass sticks, which get tested.”
On the other side of the road, the power lines carry around 7,500 volts of electricity. The linemen wear special gloves and sleeves to protect them from potential shocks.
What makes the job worth doing, Dinges said, is “the satisfaction knowing you’re helping people—especially during storms when people are out of power.
“It can be 100 degrees or zero degrees. We’re out working, trying to do whatever we can to get people’s lights on.”
A four-year apprenticeship program at Midwest Energy runs 8,000 hours and includes extensive classroom and fieldwork.
“When I started [in 2005], we had all the monster ice storms in the midwest. We were working in negative 20 degrees, and it was sleeting the first week,” Dinges said.
In a blizzard, Morley said, “You layer up. You thermal. You rotate in. You don’t stay out the whole six hours. You try to go out 20 minutes at a time.”
Dinges said being a line worker requires physical strength and agility, and a working knowledge of electricity, not to mention patience and the ability to make snap decisions.
“You’ve got to like it. You can’t just want to do it,” Dinges said.
Dylan Brown, 29, began working at Midwest Energy four years ago, mainly because he liked working outdoors.
He showed no fear of heights stepping into the bucket that carried him up to the cross arms of the utility pole 40 feet above the ground to adjust the electrical insulation.
Brown said the most challenging part of the job is the weather, “especially when you get in windy situations.”
“You’ve got to learn to work in all-weather situations.”
Lawrence Hamel, 34, has worked at Midwest Energy for the past dozen years.
Like Dinges, he said, “You got to like it. You can’t just want to do it.”
“I like teamwork. It’s interesting work, with good pay,” Hamel said.
While working in brutally hot or cold weather can be difficult, he said the reward is in a job well done.
Midwest Energy has 90 line workers and nearly a quarter million utility poles systemwide. Many utility poles are still in excellent shape even after almost 80 years of use.
Morley said that strong winds and ice are the most common reasons for equipment failure. The company tests the structural integrity of its utility poles at least once every 15 years.
He said the company anticipates demand for power line workers to continue with the transition to renewable energy systems such as wind and solar power and government-funded projects.
“We are smack dab in the middle of some of the largest wind farms in the country,” Morley said. “What it has meant for us is constructing new transmission lines to get that energy to where it’s needed, which would be your urban centers.”
When it comes to personal satisfaction, there’s nothing like the joy of seeing the lights come back on after a power outage, Dinges said—even if it means missing a family event.
“I’ve missed eight of 17 Christmases and New Years. It’s never been a problem because my wife understands I love the job—and it’s my life,” Dinges said.