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Planting the Seeds of Success: IBEW 17 expands tree trimmer training to attract new members

By Susan DeGrane | Sep 15, 2023
The DTE Tree Trim Academy was established by the Michigan utility DTE Energy, IBEW 17-Detroit, the city of Detroit and Focus: Hope, a not-for-profit offering employment assistance. IBEW 17
Recognizing trees as the major cause of power outages, IBEW 17-Detroit in Southfield, Mich., operates one of two Department of Labor-certified line clearance tree-­trimming (LCTT) programs in the nation. In recent years, the local has attracted new members by taking tree trimmer training to new levels and locations.

Recognizing trees as the major cause of power outages, IBEW 17-Detroit in Southfield, Mich., operates one of two Department of Labor-certified line clearance tree-­trimming (LCTT) programs in the nation. In recent years, the local has attracted new members by taking tree trimmer training to new levels and locations.

The effort is not surprising, given the local’s track record for building membership. Despite the onset of a global pandemic, in 2020 IBEW 17 added more than 1,000 members and ranked sixth among the nation’s top 20 IBEW locals for member expansion. 

A successful partnership

In 2021, IBEW 17 partnered with the utility DTE Energy, the city of Detroit and Focus: Hope, a not-for-profit employment assistance provider, to establish the DTE Tree Trim Academy. So far, 100 graduates of the six-week program have been placed in jobs with contractors that provide LCTT services for DTE. Forty-eight have entered the LCTT apprentice pipeline.

“About 75% of our graduates come from communities of color,” said James Shaw, IBEW 17 business manager and financial secretary. “About 50% are from Detroit and 10% are women.”

Shaw finds those numbers significant because “we have struggled to diversify our workforce. This program has enabled us to grow numbers of women and minorities entering the trade significantly. The success of the partnership comes [from getting] the messaging out to the right people,” he said.

The first two weeks of the academy include soft skills training covering basic work skills, punctuality, customer service and how to set up a checking account. Two weeks of CDL license training follow at no cost to enrollees. 

The remaining two weeks take place on land set aside by the city in Rouge Park, which features 400 acres of trees. Here, enrollees climb and rappel from a massive purpose-built structure. They also shoot hoops from bucket lifts and learn fundamentals of tree trimming and safety.

“This is a very demanding and difficult job,” Shaw said. “They’ll be working at heights and around electricity, so they have to get used to heights before going out in the field.”

If participants make it through the academy and pass the Class B CDL license test, they can begin working for an IBEW-affiliated LCTT contractor. After a couple of months, they can sign up for IBEW 17’s pre-apprentice LCTT Boot Camp. 

The camp covers safety, CPR, bucket training, tree identification, chipper safety, chainsaw safety and rescue. 

“If they pass, they come out as an apprentice,” Shaw said. 

If Academy graduates find themselves faltering in the boot camp, they have the option of withdrawing, strengthening their skills as woodsmen, and trying again, Shaw said. 

 “Either way, we consider anybody who gets through the Academy a success,” Shaw said. “If they stay at tree trimming, they’re making a good wage, getting healthcare benefits and saving for a future. They’re also working with journeymen and apprentices and becoming aware of other opportunities.” 

Those opportunities can include substation work, telecommunications/broadband and underground work. 

The original goal for the DTE Tree Trim Academy was to create 200 jobs by 2024 for Detroit residents. Shaw expects IBEW 17 to exceed that goal for the program, as its outreach has expanded geographically. 

“Right now, we need 300 trimmers to work for DTE,” he said. 

A reentry program

IBEW 17 also expanded tree trimming training to the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2019. The training facility at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., is smaller than the one in Detroit’s Rouge Park, and the program spans six months. 

Inmates nearing the end of their sentences are carefully vetted for participation. The program offers a direct path to LCTT apprenticeship upon completion.

Establishing the initiative as a trade-training offering in the DOC’s Returning Citizens program presented special challenges. 

“We had to ask, ‘Can we bring in chainsaws?’” Shaw said. “The answer was, yes, but they had to be electric and capable of being safely stored and secured.” 

IBEW 17 also had to work with the DOC to overcome hurdles related to graduates securing reliable transportation and housing, as well as being expected by LCTT contractors to put in full workdays yet check in regularly for parole meetings. 

So far, 25 men have completed the program, and around 20 have entered IBEW 17’s LCTT apprentice program. Three are LCTT journeymen.

Header image: The DTE Tree Trim Academy was established by the Michigan utility DTE Energy, IBEW 17-Detroit, the city of Detroit and Focus: Hope, a not-for-profit offering employment assistance. Photo courtesy of IBEW 17.

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].

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