Girl Power: High School Girls Learn Lineworker Skills at Co-op Camp

High school sophomore Anna Pencak likes the challenge of climbing a pole at the inaugural Girl Power Camp at the Virginia Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives Training Center in Palmyra, Virginia. (Photo Courtesy: VMDAEC)

PALMYRA, Va.—As a high school student, Anna Pencak gets a day off from classes for college and career visits. But instead of visiting a leafy college campus or sitting in a stuffy conference room, Pencak, 15, was suited up in a belt and gaffs, attempting to climb a 40-foot power pole during a program at Virginia Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives Training Center in Palmyra, Virginia.

With a belt cinched around her waist and Northern Neck Electric’s Genevie Boarman as her on-ground guide, the Louisa County High School sophomore got about a quarter of the way up the pole.

“It was awesome,” said Pencak after making it down safely. “It was so much fun to see how high I could get. I was a little upset when they told me I had to come down.”

Pencak was one of 11 Virginia high school students attending the first-ever Girl Power Camp, a one-day program sponsored by VMDAEC and industry vendors. During the Sept. 22 camp, the girls performed basic linework tasks under the supervision of lineworkers from nearby co-ops. The campers also heard from professionals in the field about their own career paths.

Boarman, a line apprentice at Warsaw-based Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, graduated with a culinary arts certificate from Northern Neck Technical Center and saw her job prospects vanish as the pandemic clobbered the restaurant industry.

“I was 22 and wanted to stay in Northern Neck, but there were no job opportunities for females,” Boarman told the group during their lunch break. “My dad worked at a co-op, and I wasn’t a bookwork, work-inside-type of girl.”

Many professionals throughout the cooperative network can relate to Boarman’s experience, having discovered co-ops as a second or third option. The camp is the first hands-on offering under Powerful Careers, a VMDAEC initiative that spotlights careers in energy to attract prospective employees entering the workforce, professionals looking for a career change or workers who have been affected by pandemic-related budget cuts.

The day was an eye-opener for the students, as they tried to tie knots wearing rubber gloves and sleeves or close an open recloser while wielding a bendy 30-foot hot stick during a steady drizzle.

“I like the community part of co-ops and I’m outdoorsy,” said Braelyn Durbin, 14, a sophomore who plays free safety for the junior varsity football team at James Wood High School in Winchester.

In recent years, raising the profile of co-op careers has gained urgency as more and more employees retire. In Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, nearly 1,160 employees are past or approaching their retirement date, according to NRECA. That’s slightly ahead of the national trend, where 22,528 employees, or 28.1% of the workforce, are at or near retirement.

Right now, Powerful Careers consists mostly of online and social media content. Each month, a worker in one of VMDAEC’s 15 member co-ops is profiled. Eventually, though, the association wants to promote co-op opportunities at job fairs, co-op annual meetings and community meetings.

“Our co-op employees have great stories to tell,” said Jim Robertson, a member projects specialist at VMDAEC. “By sharing them with hundreds of thousands of readers, we hope to interest them in a co-op career, and the stability, security and fulfillment those jobs bring.”

Check out our photo gallery of the inaugural Girl Power Camp.

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer for NRECA.