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High-Voltage Women Wanted; Must Enjoy Breaking Ground

In this Thursday, March 21, 2019, photo, Jordan Demartino climbs towards the top of a power pole in a bucket truck as she works to install a new backyard light for a Duke Energy customer in Simpsonville, S.C.
Sarah Blake Morgan

On a cool South Carolina morning, Duke Energy electrical linemen shift their gaze toward the sky as their colleague rises above them in a bucket truck.

Jordan Demartino's blonde ponytail peeks out from underneath her white safety helmet. She's quiet as she reaches the top and gets to work connecting a line from a transformer along a rural road to a new light she's installing in a customer's backyard.

Demartino doesn't present herself as the unicorn she actually is - one of only five women among the roughly 2,500 lineworkers Duke Energy employs.

The job can be demanding: Crews often work around the clock in miserable conditions during severe weather and power outages. Strength and agility are a must as lineworkers are required to lift heavy equipment up towering poles and through underground tunnels. Anyone afraid of heights or tight spaces need not apply.

Demartino, 22, says the guys were a bit surprised to have her join the team two years ago.

"When they heard they were getting a girl at work, they were like, 'What? Have people lost their mind?'" she said.

But high-voltage work makes sense for women seeking a trade where they can earn good salaries and equal pay. The jobs aren't hard to come by as experienced lineworkers grow older and retire. The nation's power grid also is aging, requiring a constant stream of work by electric companies nationwide. With overtime, salaries can easily soar into the six-figure range.

After high school, realizing a four-year university wasn't for her, Demartino left home in upstate New York and headed south to Georgia to enroll in an electrical lineworker training program.

She landed the job with Duke after completing their lengthy screening and training, including written tests and physical benchmarks, such as the ability to climb a pole with a 250-pound transformer using a pulley system.

"I went through everything that the guys went through, and no one took it easy on me," she said. And then she had to prove she had the stamina to stick with it. Jordan says her male colleagues warmed up to her once they realized she was there to do a job and not "to look pretty." Now, she considers them her brothers.

Duke Energy isn't the only power company counting female lineworkers in the single-digits. Dominion Energy's 1,300 lineworkers across three states include just eight women.

In California, seven of PG&E's 1,900 lineworkers are women. And among the 1,000 lineworkers across eight states climbing poles for Xcel Energy, only two are women.

But lineworker training programs are still struggling to enroll willing female candidates.

In Shelby, North Carolina, Natalee Nieves is the only woman enrolled in Cleveland Community College's Lineworker Training Program. She hasn't let the intense physicality of the job drive her away.

"The first week of class was exhausting. I could tell immediately I didn't have the same upper body strength as my other peers," Nieves admitted.

After about a week, however, Nieves got used to the workload. The training is tough, especially in the July heat, but quitting was never an option.

The 30-year-old is quick to credit her mother, Nilsa Lopez, as her source of drive and passion: She spent 30 years as a sheet metal worker in New York City before moving south.

"She's a big advocate for women in non-traditional employment," Nieves said.

After graduation in September, Nieves hopes to land a job with a power company in the Carolinas. Her mother made her promise she'd stay close by.

Even though it took her thousands of miles away from her family, Demartino enjoys the job.

She's working to become an experienced "journeyman" lineman. But to the untrained eye she already scales power poles like a pro.

Nieves is determined to do the same: "I'm succeeding in this class, not in spite of my femininity but because of it."

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