The first step is the hardest

Article 4/11 in the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce written series by United Way of Southwest Virginia.

June 18, 2017 (Wytheville, VA) – The first step is always the hardest – literally, according to Wytheville Community College graduate Jimmy Powers. “When I started the powerline worker program, I had no knowledge of the industry and I had a fear of heights like many of these guys. This was a huge change for me, so that first step up the pole was very difficult.”

Gavin Burnett, Perry Hughes, Mike Morrison, and Jimmy Powers on the site of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Powers, who was born and raised in Abingdon and Chilhowie, spent most of his career at a company that had strong ties to the coal industry.

“When I was laid off after twenty-five years, I felt rejected, to be honest,” said Powers. “Not only was my skill not needed anymore, I felt like I wasn’t needed. I had to realize there were other skills I could learn and other things I could do if I was open to it. This program has given me what I needed to move forward. I feel like my skills are needed. I feel like I am needed.”

The changing job landscape in Southwest Virginia reflects a larger national trend. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, according to Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Perry Hughes, Director of Workforce Development for Wytheville Community College (WCC), said, “You’ve got to get some type of training – whether it’s non-credit or credit. Spend six weeks learning to drive a truck, spend eight weeks learning line working, spend eighty hours learning how to weld, get a two-year degree in nursing, or a four-year degree in engineering – whatever you do, make sure you’re gaining skills in the process that are needed in the workforce. You can get the degree or certification and it will likely be very valuable, but you also need the skills to back it up.”

Student Gavin Burnett trains as a lineman in the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Wytheville Community College is joined by other community colleges changing the lives of Southwest Virginians through short-term certification programs. Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon offers several workforce development courses such as mechatronics and CDL programs. Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands has programs in machining and welding among others. Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap recently received a grant to add a powerline worker training program to their current workforce development efforts. Whether their students are entering the workforce for the first time or learning new skills to work in different industry, each of the programs has proven to be successful.

Wytheville Community College’s powerline working training program’s inaugural class of seven students graduated on June 16, with employers still in bidding wars over students. The program, which began in March, provides six weeks of CDL (Commercial Drivers License) training and eight weeks of powerline worker training to prepare students to work in the electric power industry, which is currently facing a skills gap due to the baby boomer retirement wave.

“As baby boomers walk out the door, they’re taking a lot of skills with them,” said Hughes. “We’ve got a skills gap right now because an entire generation was missed, and that’s what we’re addressing with this program.”

The powerline worker training program’s success is due to a well-executed plan, help from industry leaders like Appalachian Power, dedicated students, and a well-respected, industry-trained instructor, Mike Morrison.

Hughes said, “Mike Morrison has 21 years in supervision and training in the electric power industry. He is out here giving them this set of skills and we’re connecting them to local employers. We’re helping them take the first step toward a career in the industry because the first step is always the hardest.”

Perry Hughes and Mike Morrison (back center) with the inaugural graduating class on site of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Partnering with local industry leaders is crucial to the program. Hughes explained that the equipment used at the WCC test facility is the same equipment used in the industry, activities in the class are actual hands-on projects, and everything students need is included in the program – even equipment like custom belts.

Hughes said, “We went to AEP and asked, ‘What type of climbing equipment are you using?’ And that’s what our students use in the pole yard.” The pole yard at Wytheville Community College is comprised of both 20 foot and 40 foot poles, and all the lines and equipment on the poles have been installed by the students.

Line work might sound technical, as if it only involved hard skills or tangible abilities, but the type of work they do develops soft skills, too, in areas like problem solving and teamwork, especially with a team with an impressive age range of 20 to 53.

Teamwork came easy to graduate Gavin Burnett, a 25-year-old whose previous jobs involved team building on rope courses and aerial adventures. Burnett said, “I was able to encourage some of the other students to climb and help them get over the fear in their heads because of my experience. And I’ve learned a lot from the three older gentlemen in the program that have life experience and wisdom to see the bigger picture. We all bring something to the table.”

Gavin Burnett, June 2017 graduate of the powerline worker training program at Wytheville Community College.

Gavin Burnett attended a four-year institution, but finding gainful employment that didn’t involve sitting behind a desk proved to be difficult. After working three part-time jobs for years, Burnett was introduced to the powerline worker training program. His family encouraged and supported his decision to begin the program. Burnett said, “I’ve always had the opinion that anybody can do anything if they’re willing to put the effort into it. So, it wasn’t a question of whether or not I could do what it took for the class. It was whether or not I had the support. In my opinion, I have the best parents on the face of the planet. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

There are a few other people Burnett mentioned he couldn’t have completed the program without – the ones who created the program.

Burnett said, “If you want to learn, the staff and instructors here do whatever it takes to help you learn and get you through the program, and they don’t stop there. They provide $2,000 worth of equipment and they help you get a job. Everyone that went through the CDL class had job offers. Everyone in this class has job offers. Seven companies have come to talk to us and to offer us positions, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”

The most rewarding part for Hughes has been seeing success of the program so far – not only for the employers, but for the graduates. “When you’ve got individuals who are struggling to find jobs and now all of the sudden multiple companies are coming in offering anywhere from $14-$21 an hour, that’s life-changing. That’s why I do what I do. We’re changing lives. We’re helping people better themselves.”

Hughes said, “With all of our community colleges, our goal is to have employers come looking for our students. We want them to say ‘That’s a community college student and we know they’re ready to go to work.’“

Article 4/11. The written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series was created by United Way of Southwest Virginia. The introductory article was released in May 2017, with nine articles to be released online on the first and third Sundays from May-September, and published in various print publications across the region. Each of the nine articles will explore current challenges in Southwest Virginia’s workforce and showcase the valuable members of the workforce in Southwest Virginia. The series will share the stories of local workers and discuss topics that specifically affect our workforce in Southwest Virginia such as local livable-wage jobs, local innovation, the value of working at an early age, the uniqueness of the community college system, and combining passion with skill – just to name a few. Then, our last article will provide an overview of the actions being taken to bridge the gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region to strengthen the workforce of tomorrow. To keep up with the full series of articles, or for more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia’s initiatives to equip tomorrow’s workforce, visit

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About United Way of Southwest Virginia
United Way of Southwest Virginia fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in Southwest Virginia because they are the building blocks for a good quality of life. Through an initiative-based cradle-to-career approach, United Way of Southwest Virginia is creating sustainable solutions to address the challenges facing tomorrow’s workforce. United Way convenes cross-sector partners to make an impact on the most complex problems in our region. Through collaboration with government, business, nonprofit and individuals, United Way innovates for positive, lasting social change. With a footprint that covers almost 15% of the state of Virginia, United Way of Southwest Virginia serves Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise, and the cities of Galax and Norton. For more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia, visit