Blaine Bilbruck spent four years in Georgia as a soldier at Fort Benning outside of Columbus.
When the Illinois native was honorably discharged from the Army, he wanted to parlay his experiences into a new career that allowed him to leverage his military background.
“I started looking into line work,” Bilbruck told ABD.
It was a similar scenario for Navy Veteran, Tyler Rhodes.
“Whenever I decided it was time for me to get out of the military, I knew I wanted to get into the trades.”
Jayden Berry, a Marine Corps Veteran from Missouri, was also interested in a similar career path.
“I just didn’t know which one translated the best in the military,” Berry said.
A Fresh Start
A few years earlier, Madison Jefferson found himself in the same boat.
The Marine Corps Veteran was shot in the leg during a tour in Afghanistan, and when he came home, he found himself somewhat lost about the next steps.
He found the answer through his participation in “The Wounded Warrior Outdoors” program, which aims to provide support to wounded veterans through hunting.
“It teaches them no matter your injury, you can still achieve these things, you can still do these things and live a well-rounded life,” said Jefferson.
While on a Veteran hunt sponsored by Quanta Services, he met Quanta Energized Services executive, Dave Wabnegger.
“This place changed my life,” Jefferson said of Quanta.
Jefferson is now the lead veteran advisor at the Houston, Texas-based company.
Attract and recruit military veterans that are eager to train and become the next generation of line workers.
Jefferson says they’re focusing on veterans who want to build something with their hands and continue to give back to their communities.
“We’re looking for individuals that are excited and who would say: ‘I’ve wanted to be a lineman since I was five years old, I watched my dad do it, or, hey, I watched the videos and, man, this, this is my calling. This is what I want to do.’”
David Ball, director of Quanta’s line training school, called “Lazy Q,” outside of Austin, Texas, says most people don’t know much about line work.
“When they think line work, they may have seen somebody in their small town fixing a streetlight, and what they don’t know is how exciting and diverse it actually is,” Ball said.
“You get to be a first responder when disaster strikes.”
A Need Fulfilled
Ball tells ABD the industry’s dealing with an acute labor shortage that shows little sign of letting up.
“The workforce is rapidly aging, and we need a new generation of talent to fill the pipeline.”
It’s the main driver behind why Quanta is tapping into the highly qualified pool of recently discharged military vets.
“We’ve got 250,000 service members approximately every year that are exiting the military,” Ball told ABD. “Those are people that are at the right age of their life and have the skills and abilities and they’re looking for what the next opportunity is.”
To that end, Quanta Energized Services Senior Vice President Wabnegger, and with the company’s founder, John Colson, decided to partner with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Union, and The Electrical Training Alliance to solve the worker shortage by utilizing the established VEEP program.
“It’s tapping into a resource,” Wabnegger told ABD. “These guys are already very knowledgeable; they have a lot of skills. They’ve already been out in the real world and learning that and the communication side, and the professionalism and all that really attributes well to this trade. There’s such a natural fit for it. It’s a demanding trade, but you’re also dealing with the public, you’re dealing with executives, so you’ve got to be well-rounded. And that military foundation, I think, is a strong place to bring that talent up from.”
The Proving Grounds
The backdrop for VEEP is the “Lazy Q Ranch,” Quanta Services’ 2,500-acre world-class training facility.
VEEP participants spend four months here learning the foundation of the line trade,
This ABD writer had a first-hand chance to visit the sprawling property at the end of September.
The facility, built just a few years ago, was once a fully working ranch; it marries the creature comforts of a resort with the pragmatic underpinnings of a military installation.
Participants stay in hotel-like dorms, and have access to state-of-the-art workout facilities, a fully stocked lake, a recreation room, and other amenities, along with home-cooked meals prepared at a gourmet cafeteria.
On the night I visited, trainees enjoyed baked halibut, veggies, and a dessert spread, coupled with a beer and wine happy hour.
Breakfast the next morning included an egg casserole, bacon, biscuits, and other assorted pastries, and lunch included fried catfish, hush puppies, and potatoes.
But don’t let the retreat-like vibe and the name “Lazy Q” fool you, the VEEP participants are earning their keep, one training exercise at a time.
“Coming here, if you get accepted, it’s not a guaranteed pass, you’re going to have to work for it,” said Brittania Darilek, Senior Administrator of the Lazy Q School. “It takes hard work, it’s a lot of effort.”
An effort that Darilek says pays off in spades.
“It’s amazing, I’ve never been a part of something that’s bigger than me like this,” Darilek says. “I feel like I have the opportunity to help good people who have done so much for us in our country, our freedom, and help them get a good job.”
Each day starts around 6 AM with that hearty breakfast, and then, training starts promptly at 7 AM.
I watched as a group, including vets Berry and Rhodes, practiced climbing power poles under the hot Texas sun.
“The most important thing we do here is train crews that can go out and execute to work properly and safely,” SVP Dave Wabnegger said of the regimen. “The industry has changed so much. When I first started. it was all learned really in the field. The formal apprenticeships were kind of ticking along at that time. And shortly after I started, a lot of it went to the kind of the eLearning side, which took it away from the craft side. We’re really trying to bring it back. It’s hard to teach this stuff in a lecture. It’s hard to get it out of the textbook. Most of these guys learn this skill by hands-on doing it, having the mentors alongside of them who know what to do, how to do it, teaching the proper techniques.”
An Investment in the Future
At the end of the four months, the veterans graduate to become lineman apprentices at locations throughout the country.
Ball said a fully trained, journeyman lineman can make a great living.
Marine Corps Vet, Berry said the application and interview process was intense, and the training even more so, but he’s glad he’s in the program.
“It’s been great. I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge, he said. “I’ve learned a whole new ability that I didn’t know about. It’s worth it.”
Georgia vet Bilbruck shared similar sentiments and some advice for others in his shoes.
“If (you’re) in that process of transitioning out of the military, my biggest advice is for (you) to have a plan and follow that plan, whether it’s trade or college or whatever they want to do,” he said. “If (you’re) interested in the trades, I would do (your) due diligence, research, and then figure out the path (you) want to take. And if (you’re) interested in line work or electrician work, look up VEEP.”
Lead veteran advisor, Madison Jefferson is looking for quality male and female veterans who are looking for an honest career following their military service.
“I would say get your name in the hat as quickly as possible, apply to the program. Be eager, don’t sit back on your heels,” he said. “Go to the website, read the material, watch the videos, research linemen, research what you’re getting into, and show up prepared.”
To learn more about VEEP and to apply, visit www.in2veep.com.
Here is a short video Mike Petchenik produced while on the ground at the Lazy Q Ranch. https://youtu.be/rkRTRme6fmk