published Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Climb time: Trenton lineman school focus of 'Woodwalkers' reality show (with videos)

Linemen-in-training climb utility poles Thursday at the Southeast Lineman Training Center south of Trenton. A crew from Super Chief, a Chattanooga video production company, records the actions of a class for "Woodwalkers," a reality TV show.
Linemen-in-training climb utility poles Thursday at the Southeast Lineman Training Center south of Trenton. A crew from Super Chief, a Chattanooga video production company, records the actions of a class for "Woodwalkers," a reality TV show.
Photo by John Rawlston.

TRENTON, Ga. — Move over, "Duck Dynasty."

What might be the next big reality TV show -- "Woodwalkers" -- is being filmed at the Southeast Lineman Training Center, a vocational school that in 15 weeks teaches students from across the nation how to string up electrical power lines.

The career can pay well, with a median annual income of $63,250 for electrical lineman in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it can be dangerous. Electrical power line installer and repairer was ranked as the seventh-most-dangerous job in 2013, according to the federal bureau, with 23 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time workers per year.

Aside from Glen Campbell's 1960s hit song about being a "Wichita Lineman," the profession hasn't exactly been glamorous or high-profile.

"No one really thinks about them until the power goes off," said Colt Chandler Helton, the 26-year-old Dalton, Ga., native who's producing the 24-episode docudrama for Chattanooga-based Tuff TV.

Helton hopes to change that with "Woodwalkers."

Unlike what he says are heavily scripted reality TV shows that poke fun at their characters, "Woodwalkers" aims to document the "blood, sweat and tears" involved in becoming a lineman apprentice.

"My goal is not to make fun of these guys, but to glorify them," Helton said recently as some 90 students signed up for class and got school supplies. "We don't have to script it, because the instructors are so colorful."

Storm Training 2

He plans to film the arc of students' educations, from their decision to come to lineman school, to the 15 weeks they'll spend in class, to the jobs they'll take afterward.

Helton sent GoPros -- rugged, high-definition video cameras -- to seven students coming to Trenton, Ga., from around the country. Their assignment was to explain their decision to become a lineman, get footage of their hometown and take video of the road trip here.

One of them is Mario Carretto, 19, of Oglesby, Ill. A former high school wrestler and football player, he passed up scholarships to play college ball as a linebacker to go to lineman's school.

"I don't want a desk job," said Carretto, who wore a Chicago Blackhawks sweatshirt as he got school supplies while flanked by his parents, Jim and Sandy Carretto.

He was inspired to go to lineman school partly because one friend from high school now makes $33 an hour as an apprentice lineman and another makes $28 an hour as a groundsman.

Carretto knows school will be tough. Students spend two weeks scaling wooden poles set up in circles at the school -- no matter what the weather's like. Storm training is another challenge. Students have to repair lines at night that instructors damage by chainsawing down poles and placing debris, such as wallboard, in the wires.

Storm Training 1

"I'll be able to handle it," Carretto said. "I don't think it's going to be easy."

Three cable networks interested

Helton already has filmed six episodes of "Woodwalkers."

"We're in talks with three major networks," he said.

He expects to find out in mid-January whether the show is picked up by one of the cable networks.

The show already is fully sponsored, Helton said, by companies that make products that serve the lineman industry, such as belts, boots, climbing spikes, hard hats and fire-retardant clothing -- which nowadays includes fashionable T-shirts aimed at a younger lineman demographic as older linemen retire.

"There is product placement all through the show," he said.

Helton got involved with the lineman school when its executive vice president, David Powell, hired him through word of mouth to film the annual rodeo and graduation ceremony.

Powell's a former Auburn University tailback with a degree in marketing. He remembers how the lineman school, which was founded by his father-in-law, produce wholesaler George Nelson, had only 13 students in its first class in November 2000.

That has grown to classes of about 200 students now who pay $12,675 for tuition and supplies, plus about $1,500 for housing if they don't live nearby.

Graduates don't immediately become journeymen linemen. Like many trades, the job requires doing four years as an apprentice.

But most power companies give the school's graduates a credit of 12 months to 18 months off their four-year apprenticeship.

Going to lineman school also gives students a leg up when being chosen for a power company's apprenticeship.

"I'd really love to do a documentary of the school," Powell remembers telling Helton. "I've seen it grow, and I've seen the lives that have changed."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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