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TSTC lineworker students help reconnect Texas during winter storm

TSTC lineworker students help reconnect Texas during winter storm

From the Winter storm in Waco, across Texas: February 2021 series

At least 80 students in the Texas State Technical College Electrical Lineworker Technology program got some real-life work experience during the state’s recent unprecedented winter storm that knocked out power to millions of Texans.

The students worked as on-call contractors for Irving-based J&S Inspections, a utility contracting firm. Bobby Mitchell, lead instructor in TSTC’s Electrical Lineworker Technology program in Waco, made connections with the company while working 30 years for Oncor, and he put the word out to his students who wanted the practical experience and some pretty decent extra spending money.

Mitchell said 80 of the program’s 100 students took advantage of the offer, with most working as drivers or as guards for downed power lines until Oncor or other companies could arrive to repair them.

Calling the 10 to 13 days worth of work “a paid field trip” for his students, Mitchell said the work will give them valuable experience as they pursue their careers in the electrical lineworker industry.

Many of the students made at least $3,000 for their work during the winter storm, while some earned as much as $5,000, like Tyson Bagio, of Harker Heights, who is a semester away from getting an associate’s degree.

“It is good, practical experience,” Mitchell said. “That is the lifestyle they are getting into. We have snow storms, ice storms, thunderstorms. There are storms out there, you know? High winds, they all cause power outages, and occasionally, there are storms like this one recently where there are thousands of outages and downed lines due to the ice.”

While the storm caused record-setting low temperatures that dipped below 0 degrees and sheets of ice that covered much of the state, Bagio, 27, an Army veteran, said he was not deterred by the conditions.

“I am pretty much used to it,” Bagio said. “I came into the program ready for this. I spent eight years in the Army and I have been stationed everywhere. I was stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska, where it was minus-30 degrees.”

Bagio’s crew spent five days in Dallas, where he watched over downed power lines and alerted anyone passing by to potential dangers.

“It was a pretty good experience for what I will be doing,” he said. “I was sitting on downed power lines most of the time, and on top of a good learning experience, it is a way to develop contacts and more job prospects and to meet people in the field.”

Mitchell served as a damage estimator for 13 days, while TSTC Electrical Lineworker Technology student Conner Woodall, of Hubbard, was his driver. The two worked from the Austin suburbs to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to East Texas. Mitchell said in a TSTC press release that the Lufkin and Nacogdoches areas were hit hard by the icy storm.

“It was the tree situation,” Mitchell said in the press release. “There were big pine trees hanging over the lines. There were bad ice storms where limbs accumulated a half-inch of ice. The limbs fell and broke lines and broke poles on a big scale.”

Woodall said he saw lots of downed power lines and worked with Mitchell to prepare job tickets to get damaged circulators and insulators fixed. He said the weather was the coldest he has encountered.

“We have to get out and know what to look for,” Woodall said in the press release. “If you cannot get to it by truck, you are going to have to walk the line.”

He said it is the first time he has done work like this in the field. He will spend the money he earned on college costs and more equipment.

“It actually benefited me being able to see a lot and see real life,” Woodall said. “I saw what the crew would have to do to come out and do the work.”

Mitchell said TSTC’s Electrical Lineworker Technology program is called on to provide assistance during major weather events several times a year, including after hurricanes in South Texas.

TSTC’s lineworker program is part of an initiative that will refund tuition to any student who meets certain requirements and does not find a job in the field within six months of graduating, according to the TSTC press release.

“Texas had more than 10,000 electrical power line installers and repairers in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those workers made an annual mean wage of $58,570,” the press release states. “Nationally, more than 116,000 electrical power line installers and repairers will be needed by 2029, according to the federal agency. This is due to retirements, workers advancing into management positions, new housing and commercial construction, and upkeep of the interstate power grid.”

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