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Jobs of the Future: Powerline techs in high demand as workforce ages

Many apply, a handful are accepted into Cambrian College's powerline technicians program

Cambrian College is working to regularly fill the in-demand trade of powerline technicians with new recruits.

Each time the postsecondary school in Sudbury holds an intake for its Powerline Technician program between 250 and 300 students apply. Only 24 are accepted. Cambrian is the only college in Ontario to offer three intakes a year for the program: September, January and May.

It was the smaller class sizes that appealed to Ethan Clancy of Caledon. He is a second-year, fourth-semester student who started in January 2022.

“Twenty-four is really great when it comes to working with teachers in a trades environment where you’re working with your hands,” he said. “You need a lot of time, especially when you’re first starting to learn about the trade itself.

“For me, it was mostly working with my hands and working outside.” 

Clancy added that Cambrian’s January intake allowed him to start his career path sooner.

The first two semesters of the Powerline Technician Program include learning the basics: safety, climbing poles, grounding power lines, using trucks, standing poles and power line construction.

The students eventually work their way up to simulated live line installation, installing switches, and changing insulators. Cambrian has an outdoor training field at its Barrydowne campus which includes climbing poles and bucket trucks.

Professor John Allen said the students are sent out on a co-op placement in between their first and second year, which allows them to work in the trade.

“Then if they’re successful with that, hopefully they get the second co-op and a job opportunity out of that,” he said.

After completing the program, a new graduate must complete a 2,000-hour apprenticeship before they write their Red Seal to become a true journeyperson. They could then work for a city’s utility company, Hydro One, or a contractor. There are also temporary jobs where powerline technicians travel to communities to help restore electricity following a major weather event, like a hurricane or wind storm.

Allen said the pay range for an apprentice is based on a percentage of a journeyperson. It usually starts at 60 per cent, then goes up in 10 per cent increments until they’re at the full amount.

The base rate pay for a journeyperson can vary from $46 to $53 an hour, depending on the trade union or the utility you’re employed with, he said.

There is also overtime to be had, or extra pay when signing up for storm repair work. But as lucrative as the storm work is, Allen said there is short notice prior to deployment, long work hours and adverse weather conditions.

There are also different options to choose from within the trade.

“You could do it for 30 years and you’ll never do everything in the trade.” said Chris Beauchamp. 

He is a powerline technician supervisor at mining company Vale in Sudbury. He graduated from Cambrian’s program in 2015. Vale was where he did both of his co-op placements and then was hired immediately after he graduated.

When he was still in school he said he liked being out in the field best of all.

“That’s kind of what the trade is about: being hands-on and doing the field work. That’s our day-to-day routine.”

Beauchamp calls it “one of the best careers ever.”

“I tell everybody, if you want a great career, be a powerline technician. it’s fun. The guys you work with are amazing,” he said. “Of the eight years I’ve done it, I’ve had some great stories and some great times out in the field.”

Allen said workers in the profession are in high demand because “there’s a lot of guys at the retirement age.”

“There is a big boom. I’ve heard it’s roughly 25 per cent – there’s 25 per cent more positions to be filled than the people available right now,” he said.

Allen said the job is physically demanding.

“Definitely climbing up the pole. That’s quite a workout. And you’re dealing with wires and stuff you may have to reach out. So make sure you’re in fairly good shape,” he said. “And make sure you’re comfortable with heights.”

Once his education is complete, finding a job is the next step for Clancy.

“That’s where networking and stuff in the trade is super important; So just getting your name out there,” he said, adding that Cambrian is helpful at finding co-op placements for its powerline technician students.

A spokesperson for Cambrian College said the school doesn’t know the employment rate of powerline technicians getting hired directly after graduation as students aren’t obliged to report if they’ve been hired. 

But Allen and other professors have run into graduates afterwards and most have secured employment in the trade.

Cambrian is working with industry partners to possibly bring in a mock or small version of a transmission tower to teach more about this emerging area.