Reaching New Heights

It takes some grit to be a lineworker, especially as a young woman in a male-dominated field, but Erin Smith has it.

Erin, Energy Fundamentals class student shown climbing utility pole“I have always been the outdoorsy type and wanted to help my community,” says Erin Smith, a junior at Boyne City High School and currently the only female enrolled in the Energy Fundamentals: A Lineworker Program.

Growing up on a cattle farm with six siblings, as well as being an active member in 4H and having played football on the Boyne City Rambler’s middle school team, she credits her leadership mentality with her eagerness to explore an industry where women are in the minority.

The Energy Fundamentals Program began in 2018 as partnership between Boyne City High School and the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District and Great Lakes Energy, Consumers Energy, and DTE Energy. The purpose of the program is to introduce students to the power industry and allow them to experience work as a lineworker. Students gain valuable hands-on experience as well as a jump start on a post-high school education program.

At the lesson yard, Erin starts with a warm up of a few climbs up and down the pole, followed by receiving her daily assignment and job briefing from her instructor, a Great Lakes Energy lineworker. Erin says an important part of the class is encouraging fellow classmates to overcome their fear of heights on the pole by climbing with them and talking them through it. The students end the day with a debriefing of the daily project. The program also includes two hours of classroom time per week.

For Erin, there were some challenges to the program. For example, the gear.

“I’m not built like a male, so things fit differently,” she laughs.

The belt and the gloves proved to be the biggest challenge, as they are designed for larger bodies. To tackle this challenge, she wears a specific set of clothing: jeans, a thick set of coveralls and a belt with a buckle to fill the gap.

To add to the clothing challenges, early in the school year Erin developed a concussion from an experience outside of the program. Despite not being able to climb the pole for a few weeks, she kept a good attitude and found ways to still participate by helping her peers gather equipment and offering encouragement.

“I’ve learned that if you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll be proficient with it,” she says.

There are also some definite advantages to being a woman in the program. Pole climbing requires a certain degree of flexibility, agility, and lower body strength that sometimes is easier with a smaller frame.

Aside from physical structure, she sees other advantages.

“It’s a male-dominated field, so they are always looking for women lineworkers,” she states.

Her observation fits with the data. According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, only 1 percent of the 14,560 co-op line technicians, apprentice line technicians, and groundworkers nationwide are women.

Erin sums up her outlook this way: “Don’t let your gender control what you can and cannot do. If you want to do it, then strive to do it.”

It’s this attitude that makes our communities strong, and we’re humbled to be part of Erin’s journey.