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Power Up: College campus has training ground for electrical line workers

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In a matter of few hours, a clearing on the OTC Richwood Valley campus transformed into a training ground. Students will start climbing on a set of 13 utility poles on their first day of class.

The faculty of OTC Richwood Valley welcomed a crew of Ozark Electric Cooperative linemen from Cape Fair onto the Ozark campus for the construction of the outdoor classroom for Ozarks Technical Community College’s line worker training program. The crew placed 13 poles with the idea that they are helping to train their future coworkers.

Keith Dinwiddie, Technical Program Director for OTC, explained that the utility poles are just like the utility poles you see all over Christian County, but nothing will actually be electrified on the training ground. Students will put the training poles to use immediately.

“Day One, we’ll have the students on the poles learning. They’ll be in their equipment, the full climbing equipment,” Dinwiddie said. “The first day, they’ll be on the poles because that’s one of the key skills.”

Students will only go about 8 feet in the air on their first day of classes, but the climb upward will be a rapid ascent from there. They will learn how to understand and trust their climbing gear, and then learn to place and repair electrical lines.

“These are just like the utility poles you see over there,” Dinwiddie said, pointing to a set of utility lines running along Fremont Road. “They’re going to drill the holes, they’ll set the poles, they’ll put the dirt back in and tamp it down, and then it’ll be student ready.”

The training can be difficult, with students taking 16-18 credit hours per semester. Dinwiddie explained that the classes specific to line work take place during the day, and many students attend general education classes in the evening in order to complete their degree on time. However, students at Richwood Valley generally attend classes two days per week, which allows students to also hold jobs while they work. Sometimes, line workers in training can gain internships, apprenticeships and even full-time employment while they are progressing toward their degree.

Dinwiddie said that utility companies and electric cooperatives in Missouri are starved for qualified line workers, and they are willing to pay for them.

“All of the companies have really phenomenal benefits, even the non-union shops, because they have to compete with the union shops—phenomenal wages, phenomenal benefits, so it’s just a stellar field to get into,” Dinwiddie said. “They’re going to retire probably before I retire from here, making an incredible amount of money.”

OTC offers a two-year associate of applied science in electrical distribution systems. In March 2021, OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon announced that the line worker training program would expand to the Christian County campus and begin offering the line worker program in the fall semester of 2021.

“We realized very quickly that there was a great deal of demand for line worker training in southwest Missouri,” Higdon said. “Right now, we turn away more students than we can admit to the program. This expansion will allow the college to nearly double the number of graduates we turn out.”

The program at Richwood Valley accepted 18 students for the fall of 2021, with plans to expand to up to 24 students. The existing program in Lebanon has 24 students per semester.

OTC reports a 100-percent pass rate on state certifications and exams for its line worker program graduates. According to the Occupational Information Network, the average yearly salary for a southwest Missouri line worker is $79,750.

Utility companies and cooperatives were eager to help OTC get its program going at Richwood Valley. Springfield City Utilities leased four trucks to the college at a cost of $1 per month each. Webster Electric Cooperative, Ozark Electric Cooperative and White River Valley Electric Cooperative have all donated equipment, poles, materials and trucks to OTC.

“This program has had phenomenal support. They’ll wreck out a line and they’ll donate us stuff that is still useable, because we don’t have to energize it. We get donations all the time,” Dinwiddie said. “If we were having to buy everything lock, stock and barrel, there’s no way OTC could fund it.”

Matthew Ogden will be the electrical distribution systems instructor at Richwood Valley.

Campus president Cliff Davis came down to the clearing to watch the line workers place the poles on the training ground on Friday morning. Davis said he is excited to see the space put to work to help students train for rewarding careers.

“This is one of those programs that is going to be full every year. This is one of those programs where every one of our graduates will go to work right away, and you can see today, there is such a need that the industry partners are stepping up,” Davis said.

Collaboration with industry partners is a key indicator that a community college is offering degrees that meet the needs of the area it serves.

“We take a tremendous amount of pride in providing our community with those things they need, those economic development, workforce development things that they need. This, clearly, is one of those programs,” Davis said.

More than 770 students attend classes in person at OTC Richwood Valley. With online students, enrollment exceeds 1,000 students. OTC Richwood Valley is also home to OTC’s agriculture program, where students obtain degrees in general agriculture, animal science, plant science, and turf and landscape management.

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