Generating a brighter Future

WARREN- Jessica Scharrer knew little about the workings of a substation before she was accepted into the FirstEnergy/Ohio Edison Power Systems Institute.

“I didn’t even know what I was getting into,” said the 21-year-old of Kinsman. “I don’t really think a lot of people know about substations or working at one. That needs to be broadcast more to help people understand it, what a job like mine involves and the opportunities that are available. That’s especially true for women. I really don’t think many of them are even aware there’s this great opportunity here, that it exists.”

Scharrer, a 2015 Lowellville High School graduate, always liked being outdoors and spent much of her youth training as a gymnast – part of a lifestyle she said helped prepare her for the work she does for Ohio Edison, one of Akron-based FirstEnergy’s electric utility operating companies. Ohio Edison serves more than a million customers in northeast and north central Ohio.

A few years ago, a family friend told Scharrer about FirstEnergy’s training program. Scharrer went for it, completed the 21-month program and started working full time for the power company in June. She is based at the company’s Warren Service Center on West Market Street and is one of the few female substation electricians Ohio Edison has.

“I love it. This is more than a job. It’s a career. It’s something that provides a very good income and something I really enjoy doing,” she said.

Mark Durbin, FirstEnergy/Ohio Edison spokesman, said only three women do substation work for Ohio Edison, but there’s room for more.

“Because there are so few is not to say women can’t do this job, we just don’t have a lot of them,” he said. “It’s exciting to see someone like Jessica wanting to try and do very well at it. It shows the opportunity is available. I think maybe more women would be interested if they knew about it.”

Generating a brighter future

The Power Systems Institute is a two-year educational program developed by FirstEnergy in 2000 to help ready the company’s next generation of utility line and substation workers.

After being placed on hold locally in 2011, the training program was reinstated in 2014 in anticipation of more than 250 retiring workers and other openings companywide in the next few years.

Ohio Edison, working in partnership with Kent State University at Trumbull, is set to offer the program again this fall to train line workers, who install and maintain electrical power lines for the company, and substation electricians like Scharrer, who perform routine maintenance and emergency repairs on circuit breakers, transformers, power cables and other elements at a substation.

Students, while pursuing a two-year degree, split their time between classes at KSU at Trumbull in Champion or Stark State College in North Canton and Ohio Edison training facilities in Warren or Massillon, gaining hands-on experience.

“You really can’t beat it,” said line worker Connor Griffin, 23, of Howland. He was in the same class as Scharrer and also started working for the company in June.

“It is competitive, though,” the 2012 Howland High School graduate said. “You really have to keep your head on straight, don’t do drugs, keep a clean driving record. Your education and training is paid for, you get your CDL (commercial driver’s license), an allowance for clothes and in the end, if you do what you need to do, you get a job, you get a really good job.”

In return, you make a five-year commitment to stay with the company.

A growing industry

There were some 236,600 line workers in the country in 2014, the base year of the 2014-24 employment projections published by the U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is expected to increase 6 percent by 2014 with an additional 13,700 jobs.

Nationally, the electric power generation, transmission and distribution industry is the one with the most line workers.

Last year, there were 117,670 line installers and repairers in Ohio, earning an annual mean wage of $65,090.

Although specific numbers for substation electrician positions nationwide were not available, the labor department reported there were 628,800 electricians in 2014. That field is expected to grow by 14 percent, adding 85,900 by 2024, the labor department said.

Last year, Ohio had 22,650 electricians, earning an annual mean wage of $51.710.

More than pole climbing

Jeff Dawson, 25, of Deerfield, graduated from Jackson-Milton High School in 2010. He said it requires more than learning how to climb a 45-foot pole to be a utility line worker.

“It’s a physical job, no doubt,” he said. “You have to have the physical strength, but you also have to be able to think things through, to be able to show organization. If you can’t do it, you’re out. I like it because it is physical, and it requires a lot of skill. I saw the opportunity to have a better, brighter future than what I might have otherwise, and I took it.”

FirstEnergy pays tuition and covers the cost of books and lab fees for qualified students.

So far, nearly 400 local utility workers have gone through the program.

The class of 2018 is completing the field training portion of the program and is expected to graduate in May.

An information session about the program is scheduled 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 28 at KSU at Trumbull.

The selection process

Completing the program does not guarantee a job with FirstEnergy. But it is a step in the right direction, Durbin said. Individuals interested in learning more should get started by attending next month’s information session. Prospective students are evaluated on a series of hands-on activities typically performed on the job. Academic readiness is determined through placement testing and/or a trasnscript review by the college. Candidates must pass criminal and driving background screenings. A student’s physical capabilities are assessed and the selection process also involves an interview.

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