This Saugerties School Trains Students for Careers in Utility Work

The future for students of a unique school is looking up — literally.

As young people finish high school, they’re faced with the decision of what to do next. But the future for students of a unique school in Saugerties is looking up — literally.

The Linemen Institute of the North East (L.I.N.E.) opened its doors in September 2018 and has since trained nearly 100 students to become entry-level apprentices in the electrical field. During a 15-week program, founder Donald Leiching teaches a class of about 20 students nearly everything they need to know about working on utility poles and wires. Don’s wife, Nanci Leiching, assists students with resumes and other post-graduate assistance, while their daughter, Brinnah, is the communications coordinator for the institute (with the Institute’s mascot, pit bull Beth, always at her side).

In addition to standard classrooms with desks and computers, the facility also has a training room dominated by eight, 12-foot-tall utility poles on which students practice. Once they are comfortable gaffing (climbing wooden poles using only a harness and boot spikes), students go outdoors and up the hill, where a half dozen 65-foot-tall utility poles await.

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In addition to electrical knowledge, students (so far just men, but women are welcome, Don says) learn first aid/CPR, hurt-man rescue, OSHA safety regulations, and bucket/digger truck operation, as well as train to earn their commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Noah Schiffer, a 20-year-old Eagle Scout from the Rochester area, says he’s always had a fascination with helping people. His sister’s boyfriend works for a local utility company and noted there was a shortage of linemen. He’s right: A report published this spring in Popular Mechanics said a scarcity of skilled workers has led to a nationwide labor shortage.

Student Sean Rice, 22, of western Massachusetts, is following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a lineman. The potential to earn up to $65,000 — the going rate for an apprentice — attracted Rice to the school.

“It seems like a lot of people come out of college with debt,” he notes. “I’ve learned here that if you’re willing to work, someone’s willing to pay you.”

Tuition and fees at L.I.N.E. for the 15-week program is around $14,000, with tools and optional CDL licensing adding nearly another $4,000. Compared to a college loan, that’s manageable, L.I.N.E. students say. Housing is available for out-of-town students for $2,000-$2,500.

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The biggest draw seems to be working in the fresh air, students attest.

“I saw an opportunity here for a career where I can work outside and help people,” says student Brian Ice, 27, from Southbury, CT. “Plus, the fact that you learn and train outside is a huge benefit.”

When the 15 weeks are over, L.I.N.E. holds a “speed and skills rodeo” at graduation.

As the new grads show off their skills, Don Leiching looks on proudly.

“There’s a massive shortage of skilled labor,” he relates. “We saw a need for this training. Nothing’s unrealistic; they just need to pass the test.”

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