Ten years ago, Idaho Power faced a challenge common among American utilities: a shortage of field workers, many of whom were approaching retirement, while younger replacements were scarce.

Meanwhile, customers’ demand for energy was growing, requiring new power lines, poles, stations — the works. New workers were needed to build and maintain Idaho Power’s infrastructure and provide the reliable energy customers depend on. But because there had been little hiring, training and putting new workers into the field over the prior decades, an age gap had emerged among
skilled utility workers.

Idaho Power concluded it needed to attract and train candidates to replace its retiring field workers The company put a new training facility at the top of its priority list. In early 2021, Idaho Power completed its state-of-the-art Skills Training Center.

The 14,500-square-foot Skills Training Center was completed in just nine months, despite the complications of building during a global pandemic.

The 11-acre complex has received rave reviews.

“We’ve had journeymen stop by to tour the complex, and after a few minutes here, they want to go back and re-take their apprenticeship because they believe it’ll help them become better, safer workers,” said Travis Christensen, Idaho Power’s technical skills leader. “It’s that impressive.”

Scouts from other utilities in Texas, California and Oregon have come to Boise after hearing about the Skills Training Center. Like Idaho Power, they’re trying to ensure an adequate team of utility workers long into the future, and they want to see what Idaho Power’s complex has to offer.

Realistic scenarios

What makes the Skills Training Center so special? It’s a combination of tangible and intangible benefits. In the tangible column, there is a 5,000-square-foot indoor lab with two- and four-pole transformers. Located on the building’s west side, the labs allow students to troubleshoot and perform transformer connections, vectoring, single-phase and three-phase metering. Because the labs are indoors, students can keep training in bad weather, unlike before. The labs are designed for mobile training, so each unit can be taken apart and set back up in approximately an hour. This allows Idaho Power to travel throughout the company’s 24,000-square-mile service area to conduct training.

The center also has a nine-acre training yard populated with dozens of distribution and transmission poles and an intricate underground system. The overhead and underground distribution circuits can be energized up to 7,200 volts. This gives students lifelike experience, letting them hear the buzz of electricity as they work on an energized line. Students are kept safe, however, with the power lines tripping at just 1.5 milliamps.

A fully functional substation in the yard includes working controls, though the station’s high-voltage equipment is de-energized for safety. It contains underground and overhead distribution circuits, circuit breakers, interrupters, AMI meters, a capacitor bank, as well as single- and three-phase transformers. Sheds in the yard have realistic circuits where students can practice their
troubleshooting skills. They sort through possible explanations and zero in on a diagnosis and solution.

“The new yard is great in so many ways,” said Emmet Boden, a lineman apprentice who started training a  couple years before the Skills Training Center was finished and plans to complete training in spring 2022. “From the benefits of the building  to the overhead distribution and transmission lines, to the underground scheme – all of these assets made learning the trade easier. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to be a student at this training yard.”

Besides apprentices, Idaho Power’s engineers often use the training yard as a testing ground for new devices such as fiberglass crossarms, new switches and wedge connectors before installing them in the field. Contractors and vendors also can use the yard for training or demonstrations.

The rhythm of training

The Skills Training Center’s less tangible benefits include students having access to everything they need for training in one place. The classrooms, yard, lab and breakroom are within a minute’s walk of each other. Before the center opened, those amenities were scattered around Boise.

Having to load students into pickups and drive them back and forth between the classroom, the lab and the yard, much of a training day would be lost to the simple logistics of moving people around.

“We used to lose a lot of opportunities for learning just driving to and from the training yard or to get supplies,” Boden said. “The new training center helps us keep lessons fresh and build the  skills we need to do this job right and, most importantly, safely.”

Co-location has changed the rhythm of training, Christensen said. In the old days, students might sit in a classroom for four hours before trying a hands-on application. Now, classroom chunks are more likely to be about an hour, followed by lab time. The quick transition helps students learn material thoroughly and retain it, Christensen said.

“Retaining information is especially important when it comes to safety in the field,” he said. “An apprentice who learned safety steps and safety considerations really well is more likely to have a long, safe career and be a more effective employee over the decades.”

Unseen benefits

On the east side of the training center’s main building, opposite the transformer lab, is where trainers sit. Each trainer’s cubicle has a window with a full view of the training yard to the north. Just  like regular lab interaction helps students learn, being able to see the yard’s configuration and discuss ideas with their counterparts helps trainers design better exercises, Christensen said.

Besides the tangible benefits of the Skills Training Center’s amenities and  layout, one of the center’s greatest attributes is the unquantifiable sense of professionalism it brings. Students who walk into the center know they’re there to learn and prepare for serious work in the field.

“And that’s exactly what we want,” Christensen said. “Handling electricity at the voltages we deal with is serious business. We can’t afford to have students take their training lightly, because then there’s always the risk they’ll take their work too lightly — with disastrous results.”

Walking the efficiency talk

Even the building’s architecture was designed to remind the people in it that they’re engaged with the electrical industry. Three poles on the front of the building evoke power poles. Thick concrete  walls mimic the look of a hydropower dam — a nod to Idaho Power’s biggest energy source.

Block walls around the transformer lab and other areas are copies of the blocks students will see when they go to work in control buildings at real substations.

In keeping with Idaho Power’s efforts to help customers use energy wisely, the Skills Training Center uses a variety of energy-efficiency measures. For example, tube-shaped skylights illuminate much of the building during the day. They bring in about as much light as in-ceiling fluorescent bulbs give off, and don’t use electricity or need to be changed. Top-notch ventilation throughout the building reduces use of air conditioners. LED lights and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems further reduce energy use.

The next generation

In addition to training good employees, Christensen thinks the Skills Training Center will help Idaho Power recruit the best candidates — the ones who’ll help the company carry its tradition of
reliability, affordability and safety into the next generation.

“There’s no question Idaho Power’s success rests heavily on the skill and safety of our line crews, station techs, troublemen and other field workers,” he said. “The better candidates we get, and the better we train them, the better employees they’ll be for a longer time. That’s a formula for success in any organization.”

Idaho Power Skills Training Center by the numbers
Concrete in main building: 495 cubic yards
Classroom space: 2,484 square feet
Indoor lab square footage 5,400 square feet
Total distribution wire: 12,321 feet
Transmission wire: 4,230 feet
Underground wire: 4,274 feet
Climbing pit wire: 1,755 feet