TAMPA — Scaling 45-foot poles with little more than a utility belt and soaring even higher in a cherry picker seem hard enough tasks for an apprentice.
Now try it under the watchful eyes of your company's senior executives and U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, who visited Tampa Electric's electrical lineman training facility Thursday.
"Man, I was watching you," Perez told 26-year-old Jonathan Sanchez after he raced up the utility pole with a 45-pound belt around his waist as if he was just climbing a flight of stairs. "You're fast."
The program was everything Perez, the nation's jobs chief since July, said he had hoped to see on his trip across the country to find programs that train people for middle-class jobs.
Apprentices such as Sanchez train to maintain and repair electrical power transmission systems and electrical equipment. After the program, they begin earning about $70,000 a year plus the potential for overtime.
The state's third-largest investor-owned utility, Tampa Electric serves 678,000 customers and employs 2,400 workers, including 120 linemen. It is owned by Tampa's TECO Energy.
More than 80 percent of the current linemen received their training through the apprenticeship program. "It really is not only a model for this area but a model for the nation," Perez said.
Florida, Perez said, has made positive gains in job creation. That's one reason he made the Tampa Bay area one of his stops.
Since peaking near 12 percent in 2010, Florida's unemployment rate has steadily fallen. It was 7 percent in August, according to the most recent data available.
Perez quizzes Sanchez after he climbs down the pole.
How long have you been doing this? Six months, Sanchez says.
What's your biggest challenge? Memorizing everything, Sanchez says and chuckles.
Tampa Electric's program has been a mainstay for training and developing solid middle-class jobs since 1978, including for military veterans such as Robert Tolbert. He joined the utility in 2006 through the apprentice program.
Now a substation technical trainer for the apprentices, Tolbert said trainees also can earn college credit along with good pay by completing the program.
"There's a chance to make a lot of money doing something you enjoy," Tolbert said.
"Apprenticeships are gateways to the middle class," Perez said.
The secretary said his department is working with employers and community colleges to expand such opportunities.
"Thanks for letting me watch you," Perez told the group of about 10 apprentices Thursday. "I've learned a lot here today."
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.