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Bismarck State College’s Lineworker program turns 42 years old

Keith Landeis has a long history with the Bismarck State College (BSC) Lineworker Program. He graduated from the program in 1981, was a lineworker at an electric cooperative in Dickinson, N.D., and found his way back to BSC as one of three instructors for the program in 1992. Landeis and his colleagues, Greg Hutzenbiler and Bill Gieser, are all BSC grads who came back to teach in one of BSC’s first technical programs after being in the field.

Lineworker plaque photo

Lineworker professors are presented with framed article from 1970 Morning Pioneer. From left to right: Landeis, Hutzenbiler, Gieser, Kevin Holmstrom-Program Manager and Bruce Emmil-Associate Vice President, National Energy Center of Excellence.

When Landeis started in 1992, scant records led to anecdotal stories from staff and past grads theorizing that the program started somewhere in the 1970s. Then one day Landeis unearthed the April 12, 1970, edition of Mandan’s Morning Pioneer from some old files in his office. There in the feature section was a full page spread of the newly-created lineworker program. Eight students between the ages of 19 and 31 were part of the “pilot” program, which is funny to those who know the program to be what it is now – consistently full with an occasional waiting list. Next year’s class has an incoming roster of 62 students.

Terrance Kraft was one of those eight inaugural students and wanted to work for Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative in his hometown of Flasher, N.D. He said that at the time, they weren’t hiring, but they might find a job for him if he went to lineworker school. Kraft, 22 years-old when he finished the program, started at Mor-Gran-Sou that summer changing out insulators and retired 35 years later.

The instruction felt like on-the-job training, Kraft said, making the transition from classroom to job easy. “When I started at Mor-Gran-Sou, it was just like going to school, except I was getting paid for it,” Kraft said.

The program continues to grow, and Landeis said that the popularity of the program lies with the profile of their students. On the first day of climbing school, the students are asked to share a little information about themselves, and the answers are similar. They like hunting, fishing, and the thought of a desk job drives them crazy, Landeis said. “Because of that individual’s profile, they want to be outdoors, they like working with their hands, and they learn by doing. This is a very hands-on profession, and they like being challenged. And they like the fulfillment that the challenge brings.”

Landeis builds off his students’ love of challenge in their education. “We are so specialized because we like these challenges. Our office environment scares the average person to death – high-voltage electricity, working at heights, and working in high-volume traffic. You could be working in a bucket truck on Main Avenue in Bismarck with cars speeding below. This is what makes these students tick,” Landeis said.

The 1970 Morning Pioneer has a picture of the program’s first eight students on climbing poles, tossing a basketball back and forth. What would make most people’s knees wobble, it’s an exercise to get the students used to working hands-free, and a technique Landeis and his colleagues still employ today.

Also unchanged from 1970 is the connection between the program and industry. Landeis said that this program wouldn’t succeed like it has without the partnership with its advisory council, industry and the BSC Foundation. “Our partners have taken upon themselves to basically buy all of our poles,” Landeis said. “That might not sound like a lot, but what they’re doing with their donations is simply amazing for this program. Five or six years ago, buying poles took the majority out of our budget.”

Landeis with poles

Keith Landeis at pole climbing training ground

One recent change to the program is instead of starting the program in the fall, BSC now offers a summer climbing class. Landeis said that sometimes students will find out in that first month of climbing that this career path might not be the one. If that happens, there’s still time to get enrolled in a different program.

“I tell all our students, ‘You love it, or you hate it,’ and you have to love this to make it a career,” Landeis said. If it’s not the right career path, Landeis can sense it in the field and knows what a difficult time that can be for the student. “I tell them, ‘You haven’t failed at this. You have succeeded in finding something that isn’t for you.’”

Kraft is making plans to visit the lineworker program this summer, and he might have a few nuggets of wisdom to share with the new class. One might be the appreciation of new tools and equipment that make the modern lineworkers’ job easier.

“Back when I started, they didn’t have a hydraulic tamper on the truck,” Kraft said. “You’d set poles and have a 5.5’ hole that you’d fill with dirt and tamp by hand.” It was a tough job made much easier with the new technology.

For those who succeed in the lineworker program, a career awaits.

“I cannot look any prospective student in the eyes and tell them they’re going to get a job in their hometown,” Landeis said. “But I can look them in the eye and tell them there will be a job for them someplace.” And in many cases, it’s a very lucrative one. Graduates are regularly surveyed and report an hourly wage from $16.50 on the low-end to $25 on the high-end. Landeis got an email not too long ago from a former student who reported an annual salary of $155,000. Landeis couldn’t be prouder.

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The Energy Corridor blog will have an updated story this summer on Kraft’s visit and the incoming class of future lineworkers.

You may be interested in:

BSC’s lineworker program

Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative

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