Columbia REA Connectors – October 2022

In the energy world, a connector helps bring power from the source to the end user. In our Connectors feature, we introduce you to your real-life Columbia REA Connectors, our staff.

Kevin Setzer GIS/Drafting Technician Columbia REA

What a long, strange trip it’s been. Familiar words from the late, great Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. As Kevin Setzer, Columbia REA’s GIS/ Drafting Technician, looks back on the road that brought him to Columbia REA just over a year ago, he no doubt agrees with those words.

Kevin’s long strange trip likely began, in a manner of speaking, at a Grateful Dead concert. His mom, a full-fledged “Dead Head,” used to load him up in a backpack and haul one- to two-year old Kevin around Southern California following The Dead.

“I don’t really remember much, but she once told me I have probably been to 50 or 60 Dead shows. I’ve probably been to more Grateful Dead concerts than most people who are alive today.”

“She used to tell me stories. I guess they had a little side stage at every concert. I was never the only kid there. There was always a little dance floor daycare for kids at all the shows.”

“I hardly believed the stories when I heard them later, but when my mom passed away, she wanted her ashes spread where Jerry Garcia’s ashes were spread, so we went to the Golden Gate Bridge and that’s where we laid her. My dad rented a boat, and we actually pinpointed the coordinates.”

In a not-so-simple twist of fate, Kevin is again pinpointing coordinates. GIS stands for Geographic Information System, which is essentially, mapping…and all the cool things you can do with, and learn from, a map.

“I wear several different hats,” explains Kevin. “I do the mapping. I also do a lot of drafting (detailed digital drawings of locations, facilities and equipment). I help with staking out in the field sometimes. But most of my work is mapping. I mark locations of poles and other equipment that goes out in the field. It’s kind of like creating a detailed Google map, and I’m the guy putting in all the information.

“I am creating the detail of what our linemen and engineers see when they look at our maps, and what can and can’t be built in certain areas on our system. With us being a utility company, that means I am marking the locations of all the poles, the infrastructure, the switches, the transformers, any geographic elements… even the distance between poles and what kind of wire should run through there.”

So how did Kevin get here? From right across the street, actually. But even that short trip was a bit long and strange.

“I had been in the restaurant business for most of my life…as a cook, a manager, a dishwasher, and was all set to open my own place here in Walla Walla, then it hit me. I realized I was just burnt out on the restaurant thing. So I decided to go back to school,” recalls Kevin.

“My first thought was accounting. I had always been good with numbers, but at the last minute I remembered my dad telling me, ‘If you’re going to go to school, get an engineering degree or be a welder,’ and Walla Walla Community College happened to have an engineering/surveying/ GIS program, so I signed up for that,’ laughs Kevin.

“I didn’t even know what GIS was, but I sat down at my first GIS class and was blown away. I went to my professor and said, ‘how do I do that for money? I want to do that’”

Everything was going great, and then…

“I was wrapping up my engineering/surveying program at the community college just as COVID was happening,” recalls Kevin with bit of a shudder.

Kevin and his partner, Jessica“I witnessed so many people lose their jobs in the restaurant business. I was so fortunate that I didn’t open my own place. I would have been broke. I was really counting my blessings.”

“At the same time, I was also realizing that this market might not be able to support me in what I wanted to do. So, Tri-Cities was on my mind, Portland, Seattle, wherever. I didn’t want to live in any of those places, but there wasn’t any work here, so I went back into the welding program at the Community College. As I was wrapping up my first year of the welding program, my father-in- law brought me a newspaper clipping, and it was a job listing for Columbia REA.”

Kevin applied for the job, and interviewed, via Zoom, and the ball started rolling…slowly. Things were still locked down. The building was still closed, and any hiring wouldn’t be completed until the COVID situation sorted itself out, whenever that might be.

But Kevin felt good about the opportunity, so waiting seemed like the right thing to do, even if a bit risky.

“I was still nervous about what was going on, so I had my name out there every place I could. I got job offers from other places. There was one in Boardman, one in Pasco, but I turned them down. People thought I was crazy. ‘You’re turning down money! These are good jobs you’re turning down…during COVID!’”

Finally, in August of 2021, the Columbia REA offices opened back up and Kevin got the phone call that he had been hoping for.

“I couldn’t wait to get started. I came barreling in here.”

All the waiting, all those years in the restaurant business, the burnout and the tough decision to give up opening his own restaurant, seems to have paid off for Kevin.

He and his partner, Jessica, have 3 young children, and the stability, and a predictable work week that doesn’t include nights and weekends and lots of stress, feels good.

“All the pieces have lined up perfectly,” smiles Kevin. “We live in a house about 100 steps from the house I grew up in (in Milton- Freewater). The kids are starting school now. The diaper days were tough, but Jess and I kept telling each other, ‘There will be a cool part of all this, and it’s coming,’ and now we are here.”

Sometimes Kevin still shakes his head at how it all worked out…and the steps along the way that could have tripped him up.

“I was the only one in my program at the community college when I was going through the GIS program. They almost eliminated it. They did scale it back after I left. So, I’m literally the last guy to come out of there with this sort of rounded-out skill set that I needed to do this job.

“I got out of the restaurant business – an industry going nowhere, really, during COVID - and got to come to this amazing place; an amazing opportunity, with amazing people. Everybody here is awesome. I get to be around a bunch of really smart people every day.”

As Jerry Garcia once said “Nothing left to do but smile.”