Workers in a Powerful Profession

Co-op works to attract and train homegrown talent

Story and photos by Craig Reed

The Douglas Electric Cooperative line crew includes, from left, Sean Woodyard, Jason Cox, Charles Fotopoulos and Cody McCall.

The job entails being in both high and hot spots. There are days of working in rain, snow and sunburning heat.

To work in those locations and conditions safely and efficiently, lineworkers spend hours learning and training. Classes, camps and mentoring are all part of the learning experience as they go through steps in an apprenticeship program with a goal of becoming a journeyman lineworker.

Charles Fotopoulos, a lineworker for Douglas Electric Cooperative, is in the midst of his apprenticeship. He showed both his knowledge and willingness to learn at a two-week training camp in February by being named Top Hand of the 28 linemen in attendance.

As far as DEC staff can remember, it’s the first time one of the co-op’s apprentices has won that recognition.

“The camp staff picks one person who has excelled, who has had a good attitude,” Charles says. “I was surprised. I thought there were a lot of other good guys there. But it was cool that the supervisors and teachers saw something in me. I just work. I’m not afraid to get things done.”

The Top Hand honor earned Charles a collection of Milwaukie tools valued up to to $500.

Charles is the type of person Douglas Electric is trying to recruit, train and keep on its crew at a time when the power industry is short of lineworkers.

Apprentice Lineman Charles Fotopoulos was named Top Hand at a two-week training camp in February. Photo by Craig Reed

California especially is short of lineworkers and is offering high wages in an effort to attract workers from other states.

Charles, however, is established in Sutherlin with his wife, Adrianne, and their four children.

Keith Brooks, DEC’s general manager, says he is pleased the cooperative has an outside crew whose members enjoy working for the co-op and whose families enjoy living in Douglas County.

“We want to make our employees attractive enough through training and education that other people want to hire them, but we also want to offer a work culture that makes them want to stay even though there are options,” Keith says.

“Family ties to an area are important,” he says. “If we can hire someone who already has roots in the area, that’s an advantage to them staying here. We believe in lifting up our neighbors by giving them their first opportunity for employment in our area and growing our own.”

Douglas Electric’s outside crew members represent a mix of experience.

Todd Sherwood, director of operations, has been with the co-op for 30 years. Don Utley, general foreman, is a 25-year employee. Curt Woodyard (17 years), Jason George (14 years) and Jason Cox (8 years) are line foremen.

Journeymen lineworkers are Loren Waters (32 years), Tyson Olds (14 years) and Clayton Ellis (8 years). Aaron Williamson (9 years), Jeremy Sackett (8 years), Nathan Robbins (4 years), Sean Woodyard (4 years), Cody McCall (2 years) and Daniel Gottschall (1 year) are linemen.

Charles and Neal Larson are both in their third year as apprentice lineworkers. Casey Cook and Cody Sifers are both in their first year working as groundsmen, the first step toward being accepted into the apprentice program.

These are the workers co-op members see up on power poles changing out transformers or down in ditches laying new wire.

Charles and Sean work on a line.

They are also the ones out in rain, snow and darkness, cutting trees and branches off downed lines, replacing old and broken poles with new ones and reenergizing the power lines as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible for co-op members.

“We have a good, solid bunch of guys who work safe, who work hard and are conscientious about what they do,” Todd says.

Charles, 41, attended Roseburg High School. He worked as a driller in the oil industry in North Dakota for seven years and in Colorado for one year before returning to the area. He worked for Jensen Tree Service before being hired as a groundsman by Douglas Electric.

“My dad was a lineman for Pacific Power and Light, and he said it was a good profession, a good career,” Charles says. “I should have gotten into it when I was 18. If I was going to chase the money, I would have stayed in the oil field. But that was time away, and family was here. Family is my priority.”

Charles has advanced from being a part-time groundsman to a full-time apprentice. He is through three steps of the apprentice lineman program, with three to go to become a journeyman lineworker.

“At each step, you’re evaluated,” he says. “It’s not just putting your time in, but showing progress. My goal is to keep moving up.”

Douglas Electric’s management welcomes that kind of attitude from its crew members.