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2010 September 20 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Women Climb Past Gender Barriers To Train as Utility Linemen

Photo courtesy Los Angeles Trade Technical College

Graduates of a utility lineman program at Los Angeles Trade Technical College show off their climbing skills.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Rita Romero showed up for graduation at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, the other women in her class barely recognized her in a dress.

For four months of daily classes, they wore hardhats, boots and heavy work belts to clamber up poles and muscle their way into the profession of utility linemen, becoming the first all-female class at the school to earn their certificates in the trade.

“We’re not used to seeing each other dolled up,” said the former jewelry designer. “We’re out in the pole yard drenched in sweat.”

When the certificate ceremony was over, the women changed out of their dresses and summer suits to demonstrate the skills they hope will earn them well-paying jobs with local utilities.

“I truly enjoy climbing the poles. It’s an adrenaline rush and I’ve earned my way to the top, literally,” Romero said.

The 22 women snapped photos and proudly introduced their families to their instructor, Ken Bushman, then scaled the utility poles in the trade school’s training yard.

Olga Legostayeva, who earned the instructors’ “best climber” award, perched 30 feet up with her feet angled against a wobbly utility pole to reach across to a classmate who clung to a nearby pole.

Linemen have traditionally been men and the work is physically demanding. Women hold only 2 percent of the utility transmission and distribution positions, said school administrator Leticia Barajas.

The class met every morning at 7 a.m. for physical conditioning and practice on the poles. In the afternoons the students studied electrical distribution and safety procedures until 5 p.m.

The long days were worth it, the women said, because utility companies are hiring and entry-level apprenticeships start at around $30 per hour in Southern California.

“This certificate is golden. It makes you more competitive than someone applying off the street,” said Southern California Edison training manager Lucia Kos. “We want to hire the best but also reach out and give access and opportunity to everyone.”

Two women enrolled in Trade Tech’s regular lineman’s training class last year and only one graduated, Barajas said. The school organized a women-only class for free with funding from a state grant for clean technology training and with the support of local utilities who want to diversify their work force.

Kimberly Allen, who pasted a Rosie the Riveter sticker on her hardhat, said the class came as a godsend when she found herself out of work and homeless after losing her job and her home. Despite a knee injury, she earned the instructors’ “most improved” award.

“It was really hard in the beginning of the class. The first three weeks I was so out of shape. I literally woke up crying, asking myself if this was really something I wanted to do. But I’m here. I made it,” she said. “This was an opportunity for me to change my life, to get a good paying job, and to help others, because when the lights go out, people suffer.”

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