PG&E helps train military vets on utility-industry skills (video)

The Fresno BeeMarch 18, 2014 

For military veterans hoping to land jobs in the utility industry, "just hanging around" takes on a whole new meaning at 25 or 30 feet off the ground in a grove of tall wooden poles.

They are part of the latest group of students in Power Pathways, a program sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and workforce organizations in the central San Joaquin Valley to teach would-be workers what they need to know to seek entry-level employment -- and possibly long-term careers -- with PG&E or other utility companies.

"We know that with the downturn of the economy, there were a lot of workers put out of work and have been unemployed for a long period of time, and they want to work," said Denny Boyles, a PG&E spokesman. "It's a matter of helping them get the skills they need to find those new jobs."

Power Pathways courses have been offered around the state since 2008 and are typically open to any students interested in careers in the utility industry. But the latest classes specifically for military veterans are being underwritten by a state grant from the Veterans Employment Related Assistance Program. The Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, the Kings County Job Training Center and the Madera County Workforce Assistance Center collaborated to secure the $400,000 needed to train 90 veterans.

This is the sixth crop of Power Pathways students that have come through the Fresno Workforce Investment Board training, and the third time training has been provided for veterans with special grant money, said Blake Konczal, the agency's executive director.

The Fresno WIB contracts with Fresno City College for the training; PG&E's contribution includes providing instructors and developing the curriculum, Konczal said.

In Fresno, the latest group of trainees is wrapping up its 10-week course this week at Fresno City College's Career & Technology Center on Annadale Avenue, where classroom work is augmented by field training and hands-on experience. The week of pole-climbing classes -- essential to anyone who wants to be a lineman with PG&E or other utilities -- is among the last pieces of the program.

"It's like the bridgeway into an apprenticeship," said Rick Johnson, a PG&E lineman who is also a training instructor for the utility. "It kind of figures out, is this for them? Can they do it? ... Being up there 25 or 30 feet is not for everybody."

After using their safety gear to shinny up their poles, workers practiced maintaining their no-hands balance by tossing soccer balls and footballs back and forth as their instructors shouted encouragement from the ground.

Vets in the classes range in age from their early 20s to their 40s. At 41, Army veteran Raymond Valdez Jr. of Hanford is the oldest in the latest crop of trainees. Valdez' final deployment before his discharge in March 2013 was to Afghanistan, and now he serves in the California Army National Guard.

Valdez said he was attracted to the Power Pathways training not only because of job prospects, but because of the emphasis on safety.

"Coming from many years of military service, safety is one of the big things that we preach every day. Safety means your life or your friend's life," he said. "Out here in this world, PG&E is working with power and gas, very volatile things, and their push for safety on things, for employees and civilians, works hand in hand."

Kevin Sischo, 28, of Fresno spent four years in the Navy as a sonar technician. Since his discharge two years ago, he's had a part-time job working in retail asset protection. Now, he said, "I'm tired of a job. I want a career." His goal is to land a long-term, full-time job with PG&E or another utility company.

Johnson said this is his second year working with veterans. "They are disciplined. They want to succeed," he said. "They're here early, they help clean up. They're always eager to want to help and learn."

Pat Barr, a consultant for the Power Pathways program, said the training includes 27 distinct competencies that are important to PG&E and other utilities. Those include applied math, reading proficiency, first aid and CPR, basic electrical knowledge including voltage and switching, working at heights or in confined spaces, the specialized vocabulary used in the electric and gas industries, and "soft skills" including teamwork and professionalism.

Students also learn how to weld gas pipelines and locate and mark underground utility systems. Barr said the locate-and-mark skills will gain even greater demand in the San Joaquin Valley as California prepares to start building its proposed high-speed rail system because of the number of places where the railroad right of way will cross buried gas pipelines and electric cables.

Boyles said that while the class teaches the skills trainees will need for work, a job with PG&E is no sure thing after the vets graduate.

"They're doing it without that guarantee, but it's a commitment to themselves to gain that new skill," he said.

More than 81% of the Valley's Power Pathways graduates have found jobs after completing their training, including 233 hired by PG&E, Boyles said.

Each of the last three groups to complete the Power Pathways training had a 100% placement rate -- every graduate who was not recalled to active military duty has gotten a job either with PG&E or another employer, said Konczal with the Workforce Investment Board.

He attributes much of that success to the characteristics that the veterans themselves bring to the program.

"They are highly motivated and they're unbelievably dedicated," Konczal said. "They're in great physical shape, so the arduous nature of the work is not something they shy away from. And they have a stellar work ethic. ... We are honored to be able to serve them."


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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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