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George Nelson, founder of the Southeast Lineman Training Center, pictured here at the school’s northern expansion as students climb utility poles in the background. This fall, the school will go from 160 to 180 students in each class.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

If you haven’t already figured out what the new complex going up on the east side of Highway 11 just south of Trenton is shaping up to be, the rows of utility poles stretching into the horizon ought to give it away: The Southeast Lineman Training Center has spilled out of its campus on the other side of the highway and is marching northward. 

“We’ve steadily seen the demand for enrollment increase, and we’ve tried to accommodate that as best as we could,” said the school’s founder and CEO, George Nelson. “So about a year ago this time we bought 21 more acres just north of here.”

The college’s armies of utility poles were among the first commodities to make the move from SLTC’s existing campus down the road to the new site – and they aren’t just used for climbing practice there. “All this wood for the framing is wood that we have cut on our own sawmill out of used line poles,” said Nelson.  

Nelson was speaking amid the sounds of swinging hammers as he exhibited the building under construction on the college’s northern expansion. “The poles get so chewed up after 15 weeks we replace them,” he said. “That’s part of the students’ training, actually. They pull the old pole and replace it so the next class has brand new poles to start out with.”

The poles are a fact of lineman life. Throughout the outdoor instruction areas at both sites, in rows or circles, loom an estimated 350 poles still in use, and in one corner of the old campus lies a titanic heap of discarded ones that amassed before Nelson got the bright idea of cutting them up for lumber. Pole-climbing is to lineman training what the alphabet is to grade school, and the college has been graduating three classes a year since 2000.

There were fewer poles back then. The school’s first graduating class, in May 2000, was 13 guys, recalls Nelson. Note masculine noun: though SLTC is a coed school, historically there have been so few “linewomen” Nelson has no trouble keeping up with the numbers. When the current class graduates this August, for example, only one female student will walk. 

(Or should we say “climb?” Commencement at the lineman college features a utility pole “rodeo” at which graduates show off their prowess on the poles.)

But back to 2000: The school in those early days consisted of a couple of truck bays, a tool storage shed and one custom-made modular unit that Nelson describes as essentially a triplewide trailer. 

“It was offices, break rooms, classroom, everything, all in one little building,” said Nelson.

Immediately, though, the school began to grow, class sizes expanding from 13 and 14 to 16 and 17. “Every year we saw a nice, steady increase,” said Nelson. “It got to the point where we built another building down at the end which had larger classrooms in it and office space, so we moved the classrooms down there. Then we outgrew that building and built this.”

“This” was the old campus’s 6,000-square-foot administrative and main classroom building, which was completed in 2005. The building going up at the new site, expected to be finished by Sept. 1, will roughly double the school’s indoor capacity.

And that has been necessary to house the growing enrollment. From the original 13, class size has swollen to the current 160. The new location will allow the school to expand that to 180. Or to cap it at 180, actually; the college always has more applicants than it can admit. “Our next two classes are full already,” said Nelson.

Nelson had no background in line work when, with a minority partner who has since bowed out, he founded the school. Before that, he’d been a commodities broker in Florida. “I just had a knack for seeing a need in any particular industry, or any type of need, and building a business around that need. There was definitely a need for this type of training.”

Before SLTC, there was only one other lineman’s college, one in Boise, Idaho, said Nelson, and that’s pretty much the way it still stands, one school in the Northwest and now his in the Southeast – Nelson chose Dade County because he had a summer home here.

“Some community colleges have attempted to do what we do, but they can’t do it nearly at the level we do,” he said. “We have well over a million and a half dollars just in trucks on campus. We have 14 full-time instructors that we pay wages comparable to what they would make in the industry ... This is what we do.”

As for the need, companies these days almost never train their own linemen, says Nelson; it’s just too costly. “If they enroll 10 people, they may have seven of them complete, or five complete. Well, they have a tremendous amount of money invested not just in the ones that complete but the ones that don’t complete, as compared to coming here and hiring someone that has completed the program, has paid for it and shown a commitment to want to do this type of work,” he said. “Companies tell us all the time that it saves them $40- or $50,000 per employee to hire them out of our school.”

Nelson says students find SLTC a good deal, too. Tuition for the 15-week course is $10,500, plus a couple thousand more for tools. Financial aid is available through Fannie Mae, but not everybody goes that route, says Nelson. “A lot of people, their parents have saved some money for the student to go to school, and they figure it’s going to cost them $30-, 40-, 50,000 to send their kid to a two-year school or a four-year school, so they just write a check,” he said.

The almost certain payoff for students is well-paid work in an outsource-proof trade. “We don’t guarantee anything, but at the same time it’s very unusual for a guy to leave here and not have multiple job offers,” said Nelson. 

And the demand, he added, is doing nothing but boom: These days, it’s not just electric companies that need workers skilled in line work. “There are cell tower companies, telecommunications companies, fiber optic companies that are also recruiting our students,” said Nelson. “This new building will allow us the opportunity to expand into some of those types of markets.”

SLTC has also branched out into specialized industry training onsite at companies from New York City to American Samoa. Additionally, it partnered this year with Chattanooga line equipment dealer Sherman & Reilly to demo its products at the new campus to customers who came from all over. That’s going to happen again soon, says Nelson, but meanwhile Sherman & Reilly was acquired by an international company, Textron, expanding the customer base worldwide. “We bring a lot of companies in here,” said Nelson.

Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley says the county is grateful, not just for the corporate traffic but for the 160 – soon to be 180 – extra bodies the school brings into the county three times a year, eating, buying gas and renting accommodations.

“That’s a big impact on the businesses here,” said Rumley. “It helps everybody.”  

Rumley also pointed out that Nelson and his school have become bulwarks of Dade public life, championing among other good causes the beleaguered Dade County Library.

Nelson says, though he maintains his home in Florida, it’s true he devotes more of his time to Dade these days and certainly more of his energy. “I’m dedicated to this community,” he said.


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