Pamplin Media Group – New Heights: PGE Indoor Training Center Opens in Sherwood

Not only are there 23 outdoor power poles to practice on, but four also stand inside the center.

On a recent chilly morning in Sherwood, a group of 20 Portland General Electric pre-apprentices dug their spiked climbing gaffs into wooden power poles, using them to help climb to the 35-foot peaks of top of the poles.

What sets them apart is that they were the first group of future linemen to train at PGE’s new training facility, which includes an expansive outdoor training footprint as well as a facility 15,695 square foot interior on Southwest Langer Farms Parkway.

“Here at Sherwood what we do is we basically get them used to climbing the power poles, getting in shape to the point where when they get to the apprenticeship program they’re able to completely have the ability to climb and work at heights,” said Jim Phelps, PGE Apprenticeship Program Supervisor.

While power pole climbing is incredibly stressful on a person’s legs and hips, it is a daily routine that has been practiced by linemen around the world since the telegraph, and later poles electric, were first installed in the middle of the 19th century.

Soon, the linemen engage in a veritable showdown between two groups, a way for them to practice their balance on the poles.

“It’s really a conditioning exercise,” Phelps said as the two groups tugged on the rope, trying to maintain their balance more than 20 feet in the air.

“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Verlea Briggs, PGE’s senior learning program director, noted during the exercise. “If you think of this type of work as a profession, it can be extremely rewarding. We think of them as a kind of first responder…especially during storms.”

While new housing developments have their utilities buried underground, linemen practice an old-fashioned art form that’s over 100 years old. Although much of the work today is done by bucket trucks, they are usually accompanied by at least one rigger on a pole, Phelps said.

Instead of stringing live wires, linemen at the Sherwood Training Center practiced using thick ropes, stringing them from pole to pole. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - PGE pre-apprentices practice a game of tug of war at the new training center in Sherwood.  The exercise is designed to increase the balance of future linemen.

“It’s definitely a craft that we want to communicate to the community that’s available to them,” Briggs said.

Three years in the making, the new training facility sits on land that has been used to serve linemen since PGE moved its training facility from its former site at OMSI in the early 1990s.

“Our goal here is to maintain their climbing skills,” said Randy Bryson, one of the fellow trainers, who was literally showing his students the ropes. “We climb them quite hard in the morning like that, then at the end of the afternoon, we will do a last climb at the end of the day.”

It all builds confidence, he said, and as they become more confident they will be asked to climb higher, Bryson said, pointing to several high-voltage metal poles in front of the training center that go up up to 140 feet – and which linemen often have to climb too. PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A utility bucket truck parks inside the new PGE Training Center on Langer Farms Parkway in Sherwood.

Bryson, who has worked at PGE for 40 years, said a big part of the satisfaction linemen get from their jobs is knowing they can turn on people’s lights. He called the pre-apprentices he is currently training (all of whom have spent the past three months taking courses that last 12 to 18 months) “a good bunch of kids”.

One of them is Michael Tolento, 28, who is considering becoming a PGE Journeyman.

“As a pre-apprentice, my job is really to soak up anything and everything these guys are willing to teach me,” Michael said. “(I) do something new every day. Even when it’s the same thing, it’s still exciting and a new experience every day.”PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A group of 20 PGE pre-apprentices climb power poles during a recent morning at the new PGE Training Center in Sherwood.

Tolento said he had no experience working in public services and the training was “definitely learning to walk, to take steps every day.”

Those who continue their training enter the full PGE apprenticeship program, which lasts about three and a half years.

The new Sherwood facility also has indoor classrooms for training. Also inside the center are four power poles, ranging from 35 to 40 feet tall, all catering to a different set of skills linemen will need to know.PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The new PGE Training Center in Sherwood opened in December on Langer Farms Parkway.  This PGE neon sign inside the company's training facility in Sherwood is believed to be the last of its kind in the Portland metro area.

But the actual training comes as the pre-apprentices grab their tools and head for the outside posts.

On the other side of the property is what they call the “Ice House”, a small metal structure once located at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland that was used as a center for training and was later moved to the Sherwood location.

“There was no way to get rid of that,” Phelps said. “It was part of the story, the history of the company. We have (names) going back to 1953,” Phelps said.

These are the names of PGE linemen who have completed their training, many of them written on the walls of the building with others inside on a so-called “signature board”.

Phelps said he was really pleased with the new facility.

“I couldn’t be happier with the increase in efficiency, our ability to go straight from the classroom to the outside and we call it blended learning,” Phelps said. “We hit people at all levels. It’s really cool.”PMG PICTURED: JAIME VALDEZ - Randy Bryson, one of the journeyman trainers, supervises pre-apprentices during training drills at the new PGE Training Center.

By the numbers

23 — Outdoor Training Sticks

4 — Coaching posts inside the center

5.6 — Acres of Site Property

54 — Height (in feet) of the top of the indoor training center

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The new PGE Training Center in Sherwood opened in December on Langer Farms Parkway.

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