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Girl Power demonstrates the art of the lineman

Mariella Kern
Mariella Kern learns to scale an electrical pole

“I feel like I’d be good until I got to the top, and then I’d freak out," says 17-year-old Mariella Kern, as she prepares to scale an electrical pole for the first time.

Kern was one of 35 girls taking the day off from high school to find out what’s involved in being a lineman. She was wearing a hardhat, a security belt and spikes attached to the inside of her ankles. Those could be kicked into a utility pole, enabling her to climb. Veteran Blaine Salmans assured her there was nothing to fear.

And then the belt slipped, dropping her less than two feet before locking her in place.

She knew she was not in danger – but her gut said otherwise.

“Going up is a little scary, but honestly coming down was the worst part," she recalled. "I don’t know if you saw me when I slipped and fell. I was just dangling. It was interesting.”

Easier and more appealing were lessons in operating a bucket truck, using a chain saw safely and making repairs from afar.

“Because of trees falling on the line or a squirrel’s gotten on a transformer, many things can cause a power outage," says instructor and veteran lineman Blain Salmans. "We may not be able to get to that with a bucket truck, and so we use these extendable sticks.”

After 28 years on the job, he told students he still loves the challenge.

“It's different work every day. You’re out in the wonderful woods and countryside and the people that we work with in the coop world are just great people. It’s a family is what it is.”

The idea of serving people in a time of need appealed to many of the day’s participants, including Chessa Trimble, a woman already trained as an electrician.

“I’d say utility is something I’m interested in, because it’s an essential part of pretty much anything that goes on these days.”

And she likes the prospect of travel.

“Yeah, you go where the storm goes,” she explains.

Blaine Salmans and Dehlilaray Roop
Instructor and Northern Neck lineman Blaine Salmans poses with student Dehlilary Roop

For 15-year-old Dehlilaray Roop, joining the ranks of linemen would honor a family tradition going back to her great grandfather.

“If I do end up being a lineman, I’ll be a fourth-generation worker, so I just grew up around it,” she says.

Salmans notes that improved technology makes the job safer and less demanding of physical strength, and – he says – young women are welcomed to the field.

“This is not just a man’s world anymore. Women can do this job too. In fact, female lineman Gena Boarman who we’ve got in our coop – she’s one of the best apprentices we’ve got right now.”

But he knows this job is not for everyone:

“It’s very dangerous work at times, because we’re up grabbing ahold of high-voltage power lines, and your weather and stuff is not good for you a lot of the time. A lot of people anymore don’t want to do that. They want to be behind a computer and stuff like that.”

Still, the event drew young women from as far away as West Virginia and was persuasive for Dehlilaray Roop.

“I didn’t think that this would be something I’d be interested in, but after today, after talking to people and seeing all the opportunities that I could have, I might actually think about applying to places here.”

Representatives of Southside Community College were also on hand to promote their 11-week training program and to tout six-figure salaries for experienced line men and women.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief