Contractor or Utility Lineman?

Good evening, brother linemen. Today I'm going to talk about the differences between working for a contractor and working for an electric utility, or co-op. And the reason I'm talking about this is, I've had several comments on my YouTube channel, and I've also had a couple emails from guys asking me to do an episode on this very subject. Most of the people that are contacting me are younger guys just getting into the industry. They're either wanting to go to lineman college or they're in lineman college and they're getting ready to graduate. They kind of want some information on what to do when they get out there in the real world and begin work.

So I thought I'd talk about those differences. Now, these are my opinions. I've only worked for utilities in my career, two different utilities. One in South Carolina and one in Hawaii. However, I have had the opportunity to work very closely with contractors. In my position in South Carolina, I worked for seven or eight years every day on a daily basis, working with contractors to get some jobs completed, some big jobs that that utility had. Typically my utility, back in the day, we did, you know, the utility linemen, myself, we did all the work.

But in the last 10 to 15 years, the move's been made by a lot of utilities to let contractors come in and do the heavy type work. The pole replacements, the big projects where you got big, where you got long lines to build, things like that. And the utility linemen are mostly, number one, the face of the company. They always need somebody to be the face of the company, or ride around in the utility truck with the logo on them. We used to catch all the trouble. And we would also catch smaller type jobs. Now, every now and then, you know, we'd do some pole replacements, do some hot work. But it wasn't like it was 15 or 20 years ago.

The first thing that I want to talk about as far as the differences between being a contractor and a utility lineman is the rate of pay. My experience has been that contractors typically make a little bit less than a utility lineman. And it's not a whole lot. It's only just like, a couple of dollars difference. And when we get talking about this thing further, I'm going to explain to you why this is not such a big deal after all. One of the biggest things about being a contractor is the fact that you're going to probably have to move around to get your work done. You're probably not going to be in one area working for one utility for a long period of time. Most contractors, they, you have to work in a different state, they might be working three states over, they might be working on the west coast versus the east cost. You know, it just depends on the work that their contract company can get.

So you're going to be moving, probably. Versus a utility lineman, you're going to be in that town where your base yard is, and that's probably going to be your place where you go to work on a daily basis for a long time. Utility linemen typically don't move around from state to state, you know. They pretty much stay with that utility and stay in the same place. The other thing about being a contractor is, when the work is over or the money runs out for that particular work, you're probably going to get moved. I've seen several occasions where a contractor will be working on a certain project and it had a certain amount of money in it. Once that money got to where it was about to run out, those contractors were immediately released and they had to move on to a different area. So you're subject to having to move around. You're subject to, you're going to be away from your family. It could be for a couple weeks at a time. So if you're a contractor, chances are you're going to be moving around.

Another issue with what I've seen with being a contractor versus working for a utility is, when it comes down to the safety part and training, and this again, this is my personal opinion, I have seen some really crummy contract companies where I mean, they had no rules, they were dangerous, they had crummy equipment. But also, I've seen some really great contracting companies that had great training, they had excellent safety people, safety rules, and they were just all around great companies to work for. So it's kind of a crap-shoot if you go with a contractor. Could be a crummy company, could be a good company. That's the choice you're going to have to make.

Versus, when you work for a utility, normally they're kind of in the middle. You know, they've got decent training and decent safety, versus the wide swing of a contract where it could be really crummy and it could be really good. Normally with a utility, you know, what you're going to be doing, you're going to have, it's going to be a decent company to work for. You know, I talk a little bit about safety, and another thing that happens to contractors is, and I'm not going to say that some utilities treat them as expendable, but many times. And it's kind of a sad thing. If you're a contractor and you're doing, say you're doing hot work. A couple of occasions I've seen somebody knock the line out. Something happened, you know, something breaks, knocked the circuit out. I've seen utilities immediately call that contract company and tell them that that crew, they're out, they don't want them any more. Just from knocking off the circuit one time, I've seen it happen. More than one occasion I've seen that.

Whereas a utility lineman, if your company, if you're doing hot work and you knock the circuit out, yeah, they're probably going to be upset about it, but I don't think they're going to be telling you to leave. So a utility lineman has a little bit more leeway in what happens to them if some kind of safety violation or something goes wrong with safety.

I talked earlier about the money issue and I said that sometimes, or most of the time, contractors make a little bit less per hour than a utility lineman will. Contractors have some advantages when it comes to making money, if that's what you're getting in this career for. If you want to make money. Contractors can, number one, they chase storms. The first people that are called by other utilities when there is some kind of hurricane, tornado, fire, whatever it is, the first people called are going to be contractors. Because contractors can come in there immediately and get to work on the problem. The utility I worked for in South Carolina, we had lots of contractors. Whenever a storm hit, immediately within hours they would be calling, asking to release their personnel to go help with these storms. And many times, the contractor guys would be going for like, four, five, six weeks working on these big storms. So that's a huge opportunity to make a lot of money.

Yes, I was a utility lineman, and we did get to go on storms too. But a utility's got to protect its own turf. And what I mean by that is, if there's a storm and it's two states away, the utility still has to leave some linemen back in case something goes wrong in your home service territory. They can't just send everybody. So that kind of lessens the opportunity for utility linemen to go help with a storm. Yeah, we went plenty of times, I've been more times than I can even count. But we definitely didn't get to go as much as the contractors got to go.

Another difference between being a contractor and a utility lineman is the subject of call out. Contractor, you're probably on a set schedule. You're probably not going to get called out to go catch some trouble. Now, I know there could be exceptions at different utilities where they do call contractors to catch trouble. But normally they don't. As a utility or coop lineman, if there's trouble in your service territory, you're going to get a call. And typically it's not always the time when you're ready to go to work and it works out for you. A lot of times it's on weekends. A lot of times it's the middle of the night. Could be holidays, could be Christmas, could be fourth of July, it could be any time. You're going to be called out to go to work.

So those are some of the differences that I've personally seen between working for a contractor and working for an electric utility. You know, one thing that always felt, and this is, again, my personal opinion. A lot of times I felt like contractors would end up getting the tougher jobs. Like, because a lot of times utilities, and this, to be honest, they don't want to hear the complaining from their own people when a really, really tough job comes up. And it's just easier to get a contractor to go do it, because a contractor, those guys are probably not going to have any kind of complaints about what they're doing. Versus, you know, the utility guys, they're probably going to be crying a little bit. And that's just a personal thing that I've seen over the years.

And hey, I'm a utility guy. So I've seen it. So contractors, they work for their money. They work hard. Not to say that utility linemen don't work hard for their money, too. It's just, kind of a different path you can take. There are just some subtle differences between being a contractor lineman and being a utility lineman. So with that being said, I'm knocking off for this evening. If you have any comments you want to make, head on over to my website, There you can find my contact information. Send me an email about your opinions. What do you think the differences are between being a contractor and a utility lineman? Go to my YouTube channel. The Lineman Life. There it's very easy to put comments in about what you think the differences are.

And again, this episode is done to try to help some of the new guys coming into our profession. So they can decide their future, what they want to do in the future, where they want to go. What companies they want to work for. So as always, appreciate everybody listening. Remember, keep safe, and you are your brother's keeper. Aloha.

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"Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express the views or opinions of my employer."