We’re all familiar with the “alphabet” soup of age-based generations: Y, X, Z, and so on. You’ve got “Baby Boomers,” “Xennials,” and “Millennials,” all supposedly in conflict due to differing mentalities, upbringings, and belief systems about the world. But is there really that much difference between us?
With a swarm of linemen nearing retirement, Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative is facing the inevitable truth: The younger linemen will soon be stepping into the seasoned linemen’s shoes. With this much knowledge on the line, the transition of leadership and valuable on-the-job skills are crucial to pass down — both for the safety and prosperity of these lineworkers and the future of the cooperative’s electric system.
Born between 1956 and 1998, up to four decades separate our linemen and impact the way they interact from their first inhale of fresh morning coffee to that midnight outage in a raging blizzard — or their style of holding safety tailgates and passing along a “did you know?” tidbit. If you ask them to describe this generational gap, their answers reveal interesting layers.
The “young” guys
“It’s strange to think we were in high school four years ago, and they’ve been doing this since before we were alive,” says 21-year-old apprentice lineman Garrett Gerdeman, as he turns to face his fellow Generation Z coworker Jordan Mohler. Both have less than two years of experience wearing steel-toed boots, but their captive minds have already accepted the biggest priority their elders have tattooed on every conservation: Safety first, so you can go home to your families.
Sometimes dubbed the “iGeneration,” Gerdeman’s demographic is the newest and youngest entering the workforce — simultaneously accused of not having “proper communication skills” due to a lifelong attachment to smart phones and oneness with technology.
But Gerdeman stands firm on one principle: Generational differences aren’t a river flowing only downstream. The unique life circumstances determined by when you were born affect those on either side of the spectrum.
“It goes both ways. The older guys have taught me how to be a team player and that we can do any job together,” Gerdeman says. “I help them with computers, iPads, and the haze of technological updates always happening.”
Enter a Millennial: 27-year-old Corbin Rhonehouse, a PPEC apprentice lineman with four years of training checked off. This generation’s stereotype, often victimized as being entitled, comes to a screeching halt when Rhonehouse shares his stories.
“We do have a large advantage over the older linemen because we are lucky enough to have the Central Ohio Lineworker Training Facility (COLT) in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, for hands-on schooling in real-world scenarios – without the looming danger of one mistake costing you your life in real situations,” Rhonehouse says. “But we make sure to come back and share that information with the guys at our local co-op, which is always well-received. It turns out there’s a lot of ways to do a job, but the right way is the safe way.”
When given the opportunity to poke fun at the older generation, these twenty-somethings have surprisingly little to say. Rather, they prefer to act it out. Just be ready to laugh out loud when they perform imitations.
“I do notice old guys have their own slang terms,” Gerdeman says, grinning. “They grunt like it’s a response, and you’re like ‘What does that mean?’”
Joking aside, some of the younger linemen admit they think of their older coworkers as a father figure. And they aren’t embarrassed when they say it. They nod and smile, eyes going back to a memory only they and their mentor share.
“You put your trust in them every day because it’s serious out there on the job,” Gerdeman says.
The “middle” guys
“I try to be hip and cool, but then…..well, I realize I’m not,” Generation Yer Brandon Burelison laughs, a 34-year-old PPEC lineman with 10 years of experience under his belt. “To hear all the young guys’ references and not have a clue what they’re talking about… it’s crazy to think I’m becoming one of the ‘old’ guys.”
Rather than fearing the implications and stereotypes of age, the flip side is accepting the transition into mentorship with pride.
“In an industry that’s constantly evolving, we all have to cope when ‘new’ comes knocking at our door,” 45-year-old Crew Chief John McMaster says. “In my 22 years, I’ve learned you have to move along with the tide and grow as an individual.”
Science backs the idea that to most effectively soak up information (as opposed to simply memorizing), teaching it to someone else is a solid test of learning. McMaster builds on this theory every day.
“It’s satisfying to see that potential come out of people — now THAT’S rewarding. What’s good, better, and best is always progressing, so you want to position everyone in the best way you can… When I’m on the job, I’m my brother’s keeper.”
The “old” guys
If age is wisdom, PPEC’s cup overfloweth. That is, if you add up the years of experience from the top three most senior linemen, totals run close to 100 years. Speaking from a time when becoming a lineman was 100 percent on-the-job training, compared to today’s breaking-edge COLT facility, these veterans of brutal weather, problem shooting, and “seen it all” tales are true walking storybooks – of both educational and entertaining varieties.
“First coming into this career, there are certain things you just don’t believe,” says 63-year-old Operations Manager Ted Slusser, who boasts an impressive 39 years of experience with PPEC. “But once you see them happen, just like the older guys said they would, you can’t help but surrender. We’ve learned not to take shortcuts, and to slow down so you don’t fall into default mode on the job.”
58-year-old baby boomer Dennis Clark, a line supervisor with 32 years of experience, points out the younger generation’s adherence to rules — rules like “ALWAYS wear your personal protective gear,” which weren’t always strictly upheld or executed. But they do have other distractions.
“These things,” Clark says, pulling his iPhone out of his chest pocket and waving it seriously, “sometimes get in the way. Social media, all of it.”
But there is greener grass on the other side of Clark’s statement: “The way these younger kids think is different, and they want all the answers right away up front.” Is this, too, due to having a constant stream of information at their fingertips?
“It’s actually a good thing because it forces me to be informed off the bat and ready to defend my statements,” Clark says.
When it comes to showcasing each generation’s differences on a platter for examination, 60-year-old Crew Chief Jeff Ferris doesn’t buy it. His 31 years of PPEC experience have given him an answer that seems to resound through the warehouse, every bucket truck, and in the break room.
“There isn’t a generational gap — at least not in the negative sense everyone is talking about,” Ferris says. “We get along fine and all of them are great. These younger guys are the future of the co-op, and we need to leave them in good hands, instilling the same things in them as we do our own kids.”
Maybe, just maybe, this so-called gap is a result of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Wanting to be respected, sharing similar values, building trust and loyalty, giving feedback, and coping with stressful change are what we have in common – and nothing else is worth getting hung up on.