Where have all the line technicians gone?

Why don't Americans want to climb up the utility pole? Are they afraid of getting electrocuted or is it just not worth the bother?


Andrew Leonard
November 9, 2007 2:24AM (UTC)

In Florida, a line technician makes a base wage of $53,000 and with overtime can earn up to $100,000. That's pretty good money, for a job that can't be offshored and is unlikely to be nabbed by an illegal immigrant. But the electrical industry is getting awfully nervous because, well, kids today don't seem to want to become line technicians, and the ones that are on the job are getting a little gray around the temple. Half of Florida's line technicians are reportedly set to retire within five years.

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on the Domestic Energy Work Force. Panelists called to testify told the same story over and over again. Even as energy demand and infrastructure requirements will grow strongly over the next 20 years, the workforce is rapidly aging and younger workers are not stepping up.

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Explanations for this state of affairs naturally range across the political spectrum. Jim Hunter, director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said that deregulation of the industry in the 1990s "caused the utilities to slow down hiring, offer early retirements to reduce staff, and a radical curtailment in new infrastructure." Industry representatives were more likely to blame the poor math and science skills of a badly educated workforce, and called for more funding of training programs and vocational schools. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., blamed the slacker attitudes of today's young people, a group suffering from "delayed adolescence" who "seem somewhat reluctant to move into a job that might be their permanent job the rest of their life," and just aren't willing to make a "commitment."

How the World Works recalls an entire generation of slackers disappearing into the void right around the time the dot-com boom took off, but whatever -- one issue that did keep coming up in the hearing is that there appears to be a perception that a job as line technician or welder or pipe-fitter just isn't considered "cool" anymore, regardless of whether the wages are a hell of a lot more attractive than those offered by your average fast food joint or coffee shop.

"How do we make it cool?" asked Idaho's Sen. Larry Craig. At which point his colleague, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, interjected that according to her teenage children, coolness is no longer "cool" -- it's "sick."

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It just ain't sick to be a line technician.

Reading the transcript of the hearing, I found myself wondering what high school students in China or India would make of the question of whether a job that can pay up to a hundred grand a year is "cool" or "sick" enough to spur American young adults out of a lifetime wallowing in anomie. The competitive pressures unleashed by globalization are supposed to be squeezing the lifeblood out of the American worker. So why aren't people lining up to become line technicians?

This is not to say that significantly raising wages would have no effect. Obviously, better compensation would increase incentives. Nor is it to say that the competitive pressures wrought by deregulation should be ignored. And heck, for some people, working as a nuclear power plant operator may legitimately be seen as way uncool. But you have to wonder whether, in this case, there isn't some truth to the theory that there are some jobs that Americans just don't want to do anymore, and oddly enough, that includes a vast swath of engineering-related labor, ranging all the way from line technicians and pipe-fitters to Ph.D. positions in nuclear physics.

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Is it a luxury to be able to say, nah, I don't want to climb up that pole with a cable-splicer? Or is it a privilege accorded to those who live in one of the world's most advanced economies? Somehow, although I'm sure the management of an electric utility company wouldn't agree with me, it seems like kind of a good problem to have.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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