New class of electrical line technicians graduates

MARQUETTE — The next time you see a person fixing a line high off the ground in bad weather outside of the typical 9-to-5 work day, think of what that individual had to learn to get to that point.

Perhaps that worker graduated from the Electrical Line Technician Program, a partnership between Northern Michigan University, the Midwest Skills Development Center and the Lake Superior Community Partnership Foundation.

The ELT Program Class of 2018 graduated Friday in a ceremony in the Great Lakes Rooms of the University Center.

The program prepares students to install, maintain and operate electrical systems to supply electric energy to residential, commercial and industrial customers.

That takes skill — and at least a little bit of fearlessness.

That’s why NMU President Fritz Erickson, who spoke to the graduates Friday, said the ceremony is one of his favorite events to attend.

“I’m just in awe of the work of those that want to be linemen,” Erickson said. “The very idea of climbing 40- and 50-foot poles would just terrify me to no end.”

Brett French, vice president of business development and communications for the Upper Peninsula Power Company, said this year’s class is the 15th in the program, with about 400 graduates coming before it.

“Many of them have entered into the career and have successfully advanced along the way,” French said. “We look forward to you being examples in a similar way.”

One graduate who found his place in the field — the Marquette Board of LIght and Power — was Drew Ahonen, a member of the Class of 2008.

He spoke at Friday’s ceremony.

As a high school sophomore, he was interested in welding. However, a big storm blew over a couple of utility poles, which altered his career path.

“I stayed up pretty much all night watching the UPPCO crews replace poles, wires, transformer. I was like, ‘Man, that’s pretty neat. I want to look into this,'” Ahonen said.

He graduated from the ELT program and then found work in New York State at age 19.

Some of the work, he acknowledged, was monotonous, but one time he had to check a line to test to see if it was dead. The foreman at the time told him to “slap the grounds online,” but he refused since he didn’t know if the line truly was “de-energized.”

After a bit of arguing, he was sent the proper testing equipment.

The line was still hot.

“You guys have to keep safety in the back of your heads constantly,” Ahonen said.

The Upper Peninsula, though, drew him back, so Ahonen became a meter reader for the BLP for two years, which helped him learn the system. He then transferred to a line crew when an apprentice position opened up.

“The Marquette Board of Light and Power has been awesome to me,” Ahonen said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Of course, there have been close calls, one of which occurred when his crew was rebuilding a line on Hampton Street in the city of Marquette. Fortunately, a co-worker caught a falling wire — which carried a “tremendous current” — before it got close to his face.

That type of hazard, and the fact that being a line technician isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job, are some of things Ahonen told the graduates they would have to expect.

However, also must be willing to move for that first job, and gain experience.

And not take shortcuts.

“I hope you guys all stay safe,” Ahonen said.

A member of the Class of 2018, Daniel Thornton, offered a few remarks as well.

Long days spent with what he called a “great class of guys” led to his graduation.

These were challenges, though, along the way.

“It took a broke digger truck and a few stuck bucket trucks before we really started getting into the pull of things,” Thornton said. “Even when we finally caught our bearings it seemed we were still starting trucks with the wrong key and smashing garage doors.”

Their semesters also included morning math lectures from one of the MSDC instructors, Jerry LePage.

“As a friend of mine put it, Jerry answering your question is him explaining it the same way as the first time, just a little bit louder and more in your face,” Thornton said.

French pointed out that the demand for people in this vocation in the United States continues to be high.

LePage agreed, and had the statistics to prove it.

“There are over 170 million wooden poles, 2.7 million transmission towers and 9 million miles of conductor in service in the United States to provide electricity to approximately 155 million customers,” LePage said. “There’s no shortage of work out there. Now with that said, you need to be diligent in your pursuit of employment.”

He recommended spending at least 40 hours a week to find that first job, and once they are working on power lines — an “environment that is potentially dangerous” — they should work safely and as part of a team.

However, he believes it’s all worth it.

“I can’t think of a better trade,” LePage said.

Members of this year’s graduating class are: Austen J. Albany, Ryan J. Bakkila, Tyler V. Boersma, Devin R. Bozile, Dylan J. Brietzke, Jordan A. Burton, Logan T. Graff, Justin L. Jurva, Taylor J. Kamper, Markus A. Kinney, Lincoln T. Klein, Russell T. Knight, Nathen J. Kronemeyer, Sidney M. Marx, Brett J. Mattson, Jake A. Mitchell, Anthony J. Mule, Austin T. Nordeen, Austin C. Putnam, Cole T. Quick, E.J. W. Schultz, Doug M. Schweihofer, Jay H. Stevens, Ty D. Sullivan, Dan J. Thornton, Trevor J. Wickstrom and Peter D. Woodworth.

For more information or to make a donation to the MSDC, call the Lake Superior Community Partnership Foundation at 906-226-6591 or visit lscpfoundation.org.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.