Detroit Local 17 is part of a new effort to recruit more line clearance tree trimmers with a focus on bringing in local residents to meet the demand.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy

Detroit’s Tree Trimming Academy recently graduated its first class of tree trimmers, providing much-needed talent in a high-demand field and a lucrative career opportunity for area residents.

The training program is open to all with a focus on recruiting Detroit-area residents. Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy
Participants are trained on climbing trees and tying knots among other skills.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy
Training includes shooting basketballs from a bucket truck to get comfortable working at 60-70 foot heights.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy
With so many trimmers reaching retirement age, there’s a need for a new generation to take their place.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy
Some 70% of power outages are caused by trees, creating a lot of demand for the job.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy
The job isn’t just physically demanding, it also requires a fair amount of math and engineering know-how.
Photo credit: Mark Houston, DTE Energy

The DTE Tree Trim Academy is an incredible opportunity for Detroit residents to learn a valuable skill, make an excellent wage and contribute to improvements being made in our neighborhoods,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a statement. “I appreciate DTE’s commitment to diversifying its workforce and the partnership of IBEW Local 17 and Focus: HOPE to assist Detroiters for this innovative program.” 

The Tree Trimming Academy is a collaboration between Detroit Local 17, utility company DTE, the city of Detroit and Focus: HOPE, a local nonprofit organization that provides services including employment training and assistance.

Some 70% of power outages are caused by trees, and a lot of today’s trimmers are reaching retirement age, creating a need for a new generation to fill these much-needed jobs. The Tree Trimming Academy was created to establish a new pipeline of talent. While the program is open to anyone, there’s an emphasis on actively recruiting from Detroit and the surrounding area to make sure as many jobs as possible go to locals who might not otherwise be aware of such an opportunity.

“We strive to build an empowered and diverse workforce and are excited to help develop more well-trained and well-paid workers who put safety first,” said Local 17 Business Manager James Shaw. “Growing and developing local talent has to be a focus to best maintain safe, reliable energy.” 

The six-week training program was designed to equip participants with all the skills and training needed to eventually move into Local 17’s apprenticeship pipeline. Graduates also earn a commercial driver’s license and a certificate in customer service.

Upon completion, successful graduates go to work as woodsmen, an entry-level job that acts as a sort of audition. If all goes well, the pre-apprentices then move on to a nine-day boot camp, run by Local 17, which helps to prepare them for the formal apprenticeship.

Local 17 runs one of only two Department of Labor-certified tree trimming programs in the country. They currently have around 8-900 line clearance tree trimmers, but it’s not enough to meet demand.

“We’re having a hard time filling calls,” Shaw said. “DTE has had to bring in out-of-state crews at times, so we’re trying to create more opportunity for local residents to fill these jobs.”

Academy participants are recruited and screened by Focus: HOPE, which helps the program reach more people than the traditional outreach done by Local 17 and DTE.

“They can cast a wider net than what we’ve been able to do so far,” said DTE Lead Instructor and Local 17 member Clinton Williams, who also sits in on the interviews with potential candidates.

Academy students start off with Focus: HOPE for their first two weeks. During this time, they have access to wraparound services that can include anything from assistance with securing child care to computer and financial literacy.

“The access to wraparound services is really huge,” Williams said. “It lets the participants focus on the work, which positions them for success instead of having to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

From there the potential tree trimmers go to Local 17 for another two weeks where they get trained on climbing trees, tying knots and chainsaw safety among other skills. They also get an introduction to the Code of Excellence and the importance of labor unions. The final two weeks are spent earning a commercial driver’s license and a customer service certificate.

On the first day of the academy with Local 17, which created the curriculum, participants take turns shooting a basketball into a hoop from a bucket truck. It’s a way to teach them how concentrate on the task at hand and not any fears that might be rising up from being so far off the ground.

“Most people have a fear of heights to some degree, so it’s about learning how to control that fear so you can do your work,” Williams said.

While shooting hoops might be fun, other aspects are downright dangerous, and still more require a fair amount of math and engineering know-how.

“It’s an engineering feat to be able to bring a tree down without damaging any of the surrounding area,” Williams said. “There’s a lot more to the job than most people realize.”

It’s no surprise then that not everyone makes it through. Only about 30% to 40% of a cohort will usually make it to the end, said Shaw.  

“It’s nine days of climbing trees, every single day,” Shaw said. “And you can’t be afraid of things like live power lines and working 60 to 70 feet in the air on a windy day.”

For those who do make it through, they can end up earning more than $100,000 per year. And it’s an experience that develops a strong bond among the classmates, one that can last long past those initial six weeks. 

“I completed my apprenticeship in 2003 and still keep in touch with my cohort,” Williams said.

Having that journeyman license really means something when you’ve proven yourself on so many levels, says Shaw.

“It raises the level of how they see themselves as well as the trade,” Shaw said. “It’s really something to be proud of.”

That sense of camaraderie also comes in handy when tree trimmers are working together in the field. Because the work can be so dangerous, you really need to know that your partner has your back.

“The job can be terrifying at times. You have to be able depend on that person on the ground to help keep you safe,” Williams said.

For some people, the danger can be part of the appeal.

“When I’m up in the trees I get an adrenaline rush,” said Local 17 journeyman Matthew Landenberger in a video from DTE. “I have to remember that it’s a job and I’m not just having fun. It’s exhilarating.”

The first class of 12 finished the program in early June and all 12 made it through, Williams said.

“That was really nice. And it was great to have a woman in the class as well as a good cross-section of the metro Detroit area. We want our workforce to reflect the community that we work in.”

What’s more, that inaugural class is telling others about the program.

“That word of mouth is really promising,” Williams said. “I’ve already been in some interviews with people who heard about the program from a friend who went through it.”

The second class started on June 21 and Shaw and Williams say they’d like to have about four classes for 2021 and five or six next year. Including this year’s class of graduates, the program plans to create 200 jobs in the Motor City by 2024.