In 2011, when Matt Compher began working with Northwest Lineman College (NLC) to develop a lineman apprenticeship program for PLH Group company employees, he never dreamed he was embarking on a journey that would lead to an invitation to the White House.
The White House was the furthest thing from his mind, according to Compher, Senior Vice President for Safety, Health and Environmental at PLH Group, which owns 15 companies involved in building and maintaining electric power delivery and pipeline infrastructure.
“My intent was to create an ‘earn-while-you-learn’ opportunity that would change the lives of PLH Group company employees and their families, while at the same time benefit our organization by helping to develop and retain a highly skilled workforce,” Compher said.
He worked closely with Jacob Phelps of NLC over the course of several months to create the PLH apprenticeship program, taking care to ensure that it emphasized safety and protection.
The curriculum Compher and Phelps developed involves a combination of 144 hours of classroom training at the NLC campus in Denton, Texas, and 2,000 hours of documented on-the-job training in specific tasks each year. Covering safety, pole climbing, elevated work, transmission, transformers, hot line work, power delivery equipment and crew leadership, the full program takes four years to complete.
The first PLH Group company employees, from Power Line Services and Air2, entered the program in January 2012. Of the original class, two members from Air2 were the first to receive their Department of Labor certification as journeymen linemen in 2014, and 22 more apprentices have since graduated.
“We could not be more proud of these two gentlemen,” Compher said when he presented the two Air2 linemen with their certificates last year.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, President Obama directed the DOL to lead the charge in creating more apprenticeship opportunities in the United States. Their mission is to build a strong pipeline of skilled American workers, enabling U.S. companies to compete in the 21st century global economy and grow their businesses.
Branding the initiative “ApprenticeshipUSA: Building a Skilled American Workforce,” the DOL proceeded to recruit “LEADER in Apprenticeship” participants from across the country, and created seven “Sectors of Excellence in Apprenticeship” (SEAs), covering IT, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, public service, transportation and energy. The Texas DOL Office of Training and Apprenticeship, already familiar with the PLH apprenticeship program, invited the company to join the LEADER program as part of the Energy SEA.
“Several months ago, I participated in an online meeting with the DOL, in which they explained the LEADER program and expectations,” Compher said. “During this initial call, they mentioned the possibility of a select few LEADERS having the opportunity to attend a kick-off summit at the White House and a Congressional event on Capitol Hill.”
As it turned out, PLH Group was selected, due to the proven success of the company’s apprenticeship program and the Texas DOL Office of Training and Apprenticeship’s nomination. Thus it was that Compher attended the ApprenticeshipUSA Summit at the White House on September 8, followed by a LEADER panel discussion for Members of Congress and staff on Capitol Hill on September 9.
At the White House Summit, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez facilitated the meeting, and Vice President Joe Biden addressed the group.
“As you might imagine, this was an amazing experience to be a part of, both personally and professionally,” Compher said. “Seeing PLH recognized as a model for other companies looking to implement an apprenticeship program, alongside such large corporations as Ford Motor Company, MidAmerican Energy and Campbell’s Soup, was both humbling and exciting at the same time.”
Also humbling, said Compher, was the knowledge that the hard work of so many at PLH afforded him the unique opportunity to be at this historic place and event. “This recognition was the result of the efforts of many, including Sunita Khorana, President of Air2, Mike Shuba, President of Power Line Services, Ron Moose, President of Power Line Energy Services and Becky Pearson, PLH Apprenticeship Coordinator, along with the entire PLH Apprenticeship Committee.”
Just as the White House Summit and Capitol Hill event were only the beginning for the ApprenticeshipUSA initiative, Compher said the PLH apprenticeship program as a whole is an ongoing work in progress, as well. Currently, the program is available to employees of Air2, Power Line Services and Power Line Energy Services, and he hopes to expand it into other PLH Group companies in the future.