Verdugo Power Academy Holds Fifth Graduation

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Randy States

Verdugo Power Academy graduates complete their training at the pole orchard in Glendale on Dec. 9.

Derek Stowe, El Vaquero Staff Reporter

In celebration of its fifth graduation, the Verdugo Power Academy saluted the latest 22 graduates completing the lineman, technician and electrician certification program. The ceremony took place at Glendale Fire Station 21 on Dec. 16.

Of the 75 students who signed up, only the cream of the crop were selected for the 17-unit, single-semester program that covers the science and care of utility power lines and related equipment.

The academy’s first semi-annual graduation was held in January of 2010 and had 18 graduates.

Out of 2011’s December graduates, 17 of the 22 mastered the heights of the power pole. For the first time in the programs history, a female student, Michelle Christopherson, 28, joined the men. Only three other women have completed the program, but never the pole climbing segment that takes place during the last four weeks.

“It takes a certain personality,” said Christopherson. “You have to be tough. It’s a lot of tough work, but it’s great — it’s a lot of fun. Girl or not, anyone can do this if they want it — and I wanted it bad.”

Claiming a certificate in pole climbing is the first step in becoming a lineman or journeyman for a utility company such as Glendale Water & Power (GWP).

The program, conceived by GWP’s Ramon Abueg, generates workers out of the local community to replace retiring baby-boomers and was brought to fruition by GCC associate dean of workforce development Jan Swinton, technology and aviation division chair Scott Rubke, the Board of Trustees, and Verdugo Workforce Investment Board including Kristin Bruno, among others.

With just a high school diploma or equivalent, a student who earns the certificate could have a career at a utility with a starting salary of $69,000 per year.

The graduates trained 8-hours-a-day for 16 weeks to complete 600 hours of preparation. For 17 of the students, 200 hours were spent 50 feet in the air, up the poles.

Climbing instructor Robert Torres said, “You’re basically doing the job of a professional athlete every day. We challenge the students on a regular basis. Our job is to fine tune them. Of course, butts and legs and brains are hurting after 4-weeks carrying about 50 lbs. of gear up a pole. You really have to make it a way of life.”

Guest speaker Assemblyman Mike Gatto praised the graduates and all those involved with the program.

Board member Tony Tartaglia gave thanks to the families, girlfriends and one boyfriend. “You’re the ones who held the ship together,” he said.

Then two student speakers, Christopherson and Nicanor Pacheco, captured the attention of the nearly 100 guests, many of whom were wives and young children.

“Positive thinking can lead to positive results,” said Pacheco who used a quote by James Dean: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Besides friends, family and faculty members, the well-wishers included representatives from the three sponsoring entities: Glendale Community College, Verdugo Workforce Investment Board and Glendale Water & Power.

GWP has supplied facilities, materials, instructional support and technical expertise, giving graduates the advantage of training alongside GWP workers.

The Verdugo Workforce Investment Board secured the initial $285,000 grant for the project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was a $787 billion stimulus package designed to create immediate jobs.

GCC school president/superintendent Dawn Lindsay said, “We are very proud of our partnership with GWP and the VWIB. Without you, we could not have the statewide recognition we have for this program.”

Before handing out the certificates with the help of board members and academy staff, Lindsay recognized how some graduates were able to complete the program while working.

“It is a tremendous commitment to balance out work, family and education,” she said.

The audience filled the fire station’s community room with applause and took frequent snapshots of the smiling graduates and their certificates.

The fifth graduating class consisted of Dustin Shepphird, Jonathan Mielkus, Nicholas Rosas, Chase Ritenour, Arner Pitts, David Illingworth, Christian Ducasse, Nicanor Pacheco, Javier Solis, Jesus Arellano, Julian Cruz, Zachary Salzman, Tory Owens, Michelle Christopherson, Richard Preciado, Edward Felix, William Saei, Brandon Desfogres, David Lua-Mendez, Jeffrey Lindaman, Arthur Ortiz, and Earnest Caluag.

Due to the projected shortage of utility industry workers, a Verdugo Power Academy certificate will be a valuable asset.

Rubke said that graduates have had a better than average job placement record, including at least one inquiry from a nuclear facility, and a new internship opportunity working on the technical equipment and rides at Universal Studios.

To gain expertise in areas such as electrical line mechanics, power codes, overhead and underground line construction and smart grids, interested students can call (818) 240-1000 to speak to either Scott Rubke at ext. 5541, or Mirna Najera at ext. 5918.

Orientations are held monthly, and the final crew list for fall 2012 is open. Enrollment is limited and based on the application/interview process.