BERLIN, Conn. (AP) -- In the worst recession in memory, Helen Duguay discovered that climbing utility poles is a better career choice than selling real estate.
A former real estate agent out of work since May, the 43-year-old mother of five is learning to scale poles and operate a crane, a backhoe and other equipment used at electric and gas company construction sites.
"We all have to be flexible in what we can do," Duguay said. "I've never done this before."
A 12-week training program organized by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association has drawn Duguay and 11 other prospective utility line workers. Partly funded by federal stimulus money, the program is a good match for the unemployed workers looking for a job and for utilities seeking to replenish a labor force about to be hit hard by retirements.
Union officials say the average age of the nation's utility workers is about 50.
"You're looking at a potential mass exodus over the next couple of years," said John Fernandes, president of Local 457 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents Connecticut Light & Power employees.
The Center for Energy Workforce Development, a consortium of electric, natural gas and nuclear utilities and their associations, said in a 2009 report that 42 percent of the industry's line workers would be retired or gone through attrition by 2015.
The survey found most employees retire after age 58, with 25 years of service. Because many utility jobs are physically demanding, it said, some employees choose jobs elsewhere in a utility or begin second careers well before the traditional retirement age of 65.
Collaborative efforts have been set up in 28 states among utilities, schools, unions, state workforce development agencies and others to find ways to develop the industry's labor force. For example, Gulf Power, a Pensacola, Fla.-based utility, has a partnership with a local high school that offers courses introducing students to utility work. Gulf Power finds mentors and pays the cost of an exam that would otherwise cost the student a few hundred dollars, spokeswoman Sandy Sims said.
She said 20 percent of the utility's 1,365 employees are eligible to retire.
The Connecticut training program teaches students about gas and electric utilities, alternative energy and upgraded electricity systems known as the "smart grid." The program also prepares trainees for an industry employment test and commercial driver's license.
Duguay, of Wolcott, said she learned of it from the Job Corps and seized on it because she knows there's a need for utility line workers, who are paid about $56,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At a recent session at a Connecticut Light & Power training yard in Berlin, Duguay was in the cab of a crane, learning to lift and move a 1,500-pound block as if it were a paperweight. She's set her sights on a career beyond line work, but at her recent training, she learned to navigate a forklift in reverse while trying to leave traffic cones untouched.
"I've cleaned my own gutters," she said. "I don't mind heights. I don't mind physical work."
Two workforce training agencies in Hartford and Waterbury screened Duguay and the other candidates, using federal assistance requirements for minimum income and other factors. Capital Workforce Partners in Hartford selected the first six of 10 candidates and its counterpart in Waterbury also selected six trainees, said Yolanda Rivera, program manager at Workforce.
The Connecticut Light & Power training program costs were split among stimulus funding and CL&P and Yankee Gas, subsidiaries of Northeast Utilities. The costs, about $76,000, included safety equipment, online lessons and test preparation, said Judith Resnick, executive director of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association's education foundation.
In Connecticut, federal stimulus funding of up to $14.5 million -- part of $5 billion nationwide -- has paid for training in advanced manufacturing, warehouse management, interviewing skills training and other courses and programs.
Students who do not pass the training exam will be able to retake it, said Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power. And if funding is available, he said other training sessions are possible. Students who do not find work at a gas or electric utility can market their training for construction work or as truck drivers.
Duguay said she wants to pursue a career as an electrical designer, which involves planning the electrical use of a building, rather than being a line worker. Right now, however, she needs the training to find entry-level work.
"I need to be here to get there," she said.