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Lineworkers find camaraderie, competition at Gaff-n-Go Rodeo

Two people wearing uniforms and hard hats tackle a dummy. Someone operates a crane in the background
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Lineworkers compete in a bucket rescue at the Gaff-N-Go Rodeo on Friday at Meadow Event Park in Doswell.

There’s a different kind of festival in town this weekend.

The 19th annual Gaff-n-Go Lineworkers’ Rodeo began at Meadow Event Park in Doswell on Friday. Lineworkers from cooperatives, investor-owned utilities and military utilities around the country gathered to show off their skills, and compete for spots in the International Lineman’s Rodeo in Kansas.

The action began with bucket rescues on Friday afternoon, when crews simulated rescuing an electrocuted lineworker from a 40-foot bucket lift as quickly and safely as possible. They also showcased common tasks like hanging distribution transformers and replacing insulators.

“Safety is always first out here, first and foremost,” said John Lee, CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative. “But secondly, camaraderie and competition.”

Lee said lineworkers — the people responsible for getting up at all hours of the night to fix high-voltage electrical infrastructure and keeping the grid functioning — deserve a chance to show off their skills for their families.

“When [kids] see their dad up a pole, you know, they’re just bursting with pride,” he said.

The Virginia Maryland Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives organized this weekend’s events and represents many of the co-ops in attendance, including Mecklenburg. VMDAEC is also using the event to gather donations from companies and individuals for its Education Scholarship Foundation.

Sam Brumberg, who oversees the program, said the organization supports high school seniors and graduates looking to work in co-ops as lineworkers — or otherwise. He said the $1,000 awards can be used to purchase tools of the trade, not just tuition and books.

“We just graduated our 500th lineman from the program and we are poised to become the center for entry-level lineman training on the East Coast,” Brumberg said.

Virginia’s grid is changing to accommodate a predicted and rapid increase in demand due to the proliferation of data centers in Northern and Southside Virginia, as well as the electrification of homes and vehicles to meet climate goals.

A U.S. Energy and Employment report found that in 2021, employment rates rose faster in the energy sector than across the economy — 4% and 2.8%, respectively. From 2015-2019, the industry grew at double the rate of the overall economy.

Electrical co-ops like Mecklenburg — which largely serve rural areas where customers live farther apart than those in cities and suburbs — have taken on the challenge of installing and maintaining broadband internet fibers, too.

Because of the changing needs in Virginia and across the country, Lee said he thinks the outlook for lineworkers is positive.

“Job security is definitely, I think, at an all-time high for linemen. And I think demand is at an all-time high,” Lee said.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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