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March 2014

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A boom in transmission line construction not seen in more than half a century is underway in the United States.

Totals vary, but predictions from industry analysts, federal regulators and trade groups range from $200–$320 billion for transmission infrastructure projects by 2035. The bulk of new transmission construction will be within the broad arc from the desert Southwest through the Texas panhandle and then north across the Plains states to the Canadian border. Replacing aging high-voltage lines and substations lines is a national need and will happen in every region.

International President Edwin D. Hill said the construction boom is both an opportunity and a challenge for the IBEW.

"It's tempting to think these are the best of times: we have all the work we can handle and full employment in the outside branch, a claim that virtually no other trade can make," Hill said. "But that is not the whole picture. If we want to win the best part of this work, if we want to make sure we have the manpower to do it, we have to do more training and organizing than we've ever done before."

Behind the Boom

For the last 30 years, utilities invested, on average about $2.3 billion, enough to keep up with maintenance and immediate reliability needs but little else, said Johannes Pfeifenberg, a transmission industry analyst.

But since 2010, annual investment has doubled every year, and he predicts annual spending will remain between $12–$20 billion for the next 12 to 15 years.

"More than half of the 280,000 miles of transmission infrastructure was built 40 to 50 years ago and is simply reaching the end of its service life," said Pfeifenberg, of the Brattle Group. "On top of that you also have a national need for new transmission capacity with different regions having different needs. This is not a five-year blip. We are just starting."

Transmission projects are enormously expensive, estimated at $1 million a mile, and Pfeifenberg said labor costs make up between 24 and 36 percent of a transmission project's budget.

Ed Mings, International Representative in the Construction and Maintenance Department, said prophecies of a transmission boom started more than a decade ago but he had learned to be skeptical when it didn't come.

"At the end of the year they always said they meant next year," Mings said.

Nevertheless, the outside branch has been growing for more than two decades, waiting for this day to come. The IBEW has tens of thousands of journeyman linemen and apprentices across the country, a mobile, experienced workforce that can handle the largest, most difficult projects, no matter where they are.

"No doubt, it's here. They're actually building instead of talking," Mings said. "And make no mistake, if we do this right, we can double the outside membership."

Using the Boom to Increase Market Share

Steve Anderson, director of outside curriculum for the NJATC, said he has never seen anything close to this pace of new projects.

"The industry is going crazy. We are seeing not just explosive growth, but continuing explosive growth," he said.

The challenge for the IBEW is making sure that membership expands fast enough to meet the rising demand.

"Just about anyone who wants a job can get one," said Michael Brown, executive director of the Missouri Valley Line Constructors Apprenticeship and Training Program, which trains apprentices for 11 locals in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri.

Brown's program runs eight instruction sites in the center of the country where much of the new transmission work will be done. In 2009 the school started nine new apprentices. In 2013, it started more than 300. In 2009 the entire program had only about 400 apprentices. Now it has nearly 650.

"We don't start an apprentice until there is a specific job for them to fill, and we didn't have them in 2009," Brown said. "Now the pace is really picking up."

Anderson says that all nine outside apprenticeship programs are rapidly expanding. The largest growth has been at the American Line Builders Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee based in Midway, Ohio. Five years ago it had between 400 and 500 apprentices. Now it trains more than 1,000 apprentices.

"We are training as many people as we possibly can. We've brought in new trainers and built new facilities and they're working their tails off but we are still not meeting demand," Anderson said. "We are not holding projects up, but we will not be able to meet the need simply by graduating apprentices."

Anderson said nearly 1,500 plus apprentices top out each year. The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of electric utilities and a partner of the IBEW, estimated that about 42 percent of all skilled transmission lineworkers will be eligible to retire by 2016.

Brown said there is room for 20 to 25 percent more workers than will top out of the apprenticeship.

"This means don't be afraid to hire," Mings said. "If a guy can climb a tower safely, clip in the wire and not get hurt, don't turn him away."

Organizing the Workers, Organizing the Work

Eighth District Vice President Jerry Bellah's father started out as a ground man during the last transmission boom in the '60s and then worked his way up through an apprenticeship with the IBEW. He said the strategy that brought and kept his father in the IBEW then is still the key to organizing success now.

"He joined because we had the work," Bellah said. "He stayed after the work began to slow down because we trained him."

Bellah said several projects in his district have been the focus of concerted business development and organizing campaigns involving local and international resources, and they have had some notable successes. There are project labor agreements in place for two of the three big transmission projects in the Eighth District. The Transwest Express and Zephyr projects will carry electricity generated by sprawling wind farms in Wyoming hundreds of miles to near Las Vegas where it can be sent into the Southern California and desert Southwest power grids. Both projects have budgets near $3 billion and start dates expected within the next two to five years.

A third plan does not have an agreement yet. The $6–$8 billion Gateway project would erect lines, towers and substations from Wyoming to Nevada and Oregon.

Bellah and other members of the Eighth District staff have been meeting regularly with company officials to discuss manpower requirements for all parts of the project.

"I want them to see that IBEW members can also build the wind farms and then keep them up and running when construction is done," Bellah said.

So Bellah is developing relationships with technical schools like the Rawlings Higher Education Center in Wyoming to funnel students into the apprenticeship program. He is also deepening the connections between the IBEW and two community college based wind technology programs.

And as the projects wend their way through the complicated approval process, whenever there are public hearings, members of locals across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah show up to explain the importance of these jobs to the local community.

"We don't have an agreement signed yet, but we are throwing everything we have at this," Bellah said. "The locals I'm working with have doubled their organizing efforts and we are really making a powerful case to companies and communities that the IBEW is a partner they want to work with."

This article is the first in a series that will run in the Electrical Worker over the next several months exploring many aspects of the transmission line construction boom and how the IBEW plans to capture an increasing share of that work.

Above: Out of hundreds of infrastructure projects planned across the country, these projects — worth between $42–$50 billion — are the primary targets of IBEW business development campaigns.


In the U.S., more than $300 billion could be spent on transmission upgrades by 2035.


Outside linemen are in great demand as a result of the boom.