The Electrical Worker online
October 2019

Michigan Partnership Offers Second Chance
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Detroit needs tree trimmers, hundreds of them.

Fallen trees are responsible for nearly 70% of the time customers of DTE Energy, the local utility, spend without power; tree trimming reduces power cuts by 60%, according to the company. Every year, the company's more than 31,000 miles of power lines grow, and so do the trees.

Detroit Local 17 and DTE have been remarkably successful in filling out their ranks. Their 1,300 line clearance-tree trimmer members make up one of the largest LCTT units in the country. They run one of only two Labor Department-certified apprenticeships for the trade. (The other is the Northwest Line JATC in Vancouver, Wash.) They have more than 200 apprentices in some stage of the two-year program.

The average journeyman can easily earn six figures, the benefits are good, and so is retirement. But they can't keep up.

"There's a shortage of tree trimmers because of the nature of the job," said Detroit Local 17 Business Manager Dean Bradley. "What we're doing here is very, very physically demanding and very, very dangerous."

Even if DTE and the IBEW wanted to lower standards and try to handhold the not-quite-up-to-snuff onto the job, there simply is no faking your way through the apprenticeship, Bradley said.

"The job has its own yardstick," he said. "If you panic at 60 feet, you're not going to make it."

For a fair number of people, the tracks stop there. The road is closed. The washout rate in the apprenticeship is nearly 50%.

Bringing in nonunion workers hasn't worked either, Bradley said. Even if they come from arborist backgrounds, they haven't proven productive enough, safe enough or prepared to work around the wires. They just don't stick.

"The company doesn't want to hire anyone who didn't make it through our apprenticeship," Bradley said.

The truth is, the company said, it faces "a critical shortage of qualified people."

There is another truth. Nearly everyone in the Michigan prison system will go home one day. And when they do, even in an economy approaching full employment, former inmates find a wary world. People coming out of prison have an unemployment rate of 60% — more than 15 times the state's average.

Here's a dark truth. In Michigan, without stable employment, roughly one-third will reoffend. Some of those people — maybe not all, but some — made a commitment in prison to never come back. Once outside, however, many find no way to make good on that promise. No job, no prospect, no chance.

Three years ago, the Michigan Department of Corrections rebuilt a unit at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. They call it the Vocational Village, and inside the walls of the segregated unit are classrooms built to meet industry standards for certifications in, among others, welding, electrical, masonry, plumbing, automotive repair, carpentry, CNC control, even a CDL license using a truck simulator. Inmates have to apply and pass interviews. The programs last from six months to two years and students must be within that range for release.

If an inmate meets those rigorous standards, they can be transferred from anywhere in the state to the Parnall unit to live, work, eat and learn together.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has so far invested $7 million into the program, which was expanded to the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia last year, said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Department of Corrections. A new Vocational Village is being built at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township and is expected to be done by 2020.

Since the program began, 600 prisoners have graduated, Gautz said.

"Less than a dozen have returned to prison, and 65% are currently employed," he said.

That is a recidivism rate of 2%, compared with the state's overall rate of 29%, which is already one of the lowest in the country, according to MDOC.

Of the prisoners who have graduated in the past six months, 95% have left with a job in hand as the MDOC has succeeded in connecting employers and inmates while they are still in the program.

That caught the attention of DTE Chairman Gerry Anderson. Anderson approached Bradley. It was possible, he said, that there was another pool.

"I've learned from my peers — both in Michigan and in other states — that returning citizens who are looking for a second chance in life can be among your very best and most loyal employees. They just need to be given a chance," Anderson said

Bradley asked Local 17 business representative Mike Pittman to go to Parnall and look it over with assistant business manager Adam Kimbler.

"We were pretty skeptical. At least my mindset was, 'Are we really this desperate?" Pittman said.

Pittman was an LCTT journeyman for 15 years and an instructor for the last three. In his mind, this was a proud trade that already didn't get the respect it deserved. The job took physical strength, endurance and courage, but it also demanded skill, knowledge and professionalism to make a career out of it. He was, and is, proud of a trade he excels at that so very few can hack.

But he went to the prison willing to be convinced, even if it would take a special effort. He talked to the inmates in the other programs and listened to what they had to say.

"Every one was clear. 'This is an opportunity of a lifetime. If you take a chance on me, I won't let the union down,'" Pittman said.

What truly changed his mind, though, was looking at that room filled with men and considering that everyone had a release date.

"That's what pushed me over. They are getting out. Should we prepare them to enter the workforce or kick them out the door until they find their way back?" he said.

In July, DTE and Local 17 announced Parnall's newest program, a line clearance tree trimmer certification program with a specialized curriculum, developed specifically by Local 17 for the opportunities and constraints of a program behind walls. Bradley and Anderson were there, as was the director of MDOC and her boss, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The first class of 14 men began training in early June and a second group of 10 began in August.

Over six-to-nine months of in-class and practical work, students will learn to safely climb trees, use tree trim equipment including electric chainsaws and obtain a Commercial Driver's License.

The centerpiece is an IBEW-designed-and-built climbing structure that towers over the razor-wire-topped prison walls, a jarring and unexpected sight in a maximum security prison.

"If they work hard, if they really embrace the opportunity, they could know as much as a mid-step apprentice when they get out," Pittman said.

When they are released, they will be eligible to join Local 17 as line clearance tree trim apprentices.

"This is a partnership unlike any other, and I think it is the first in what could be many when we see how this is going to change lives and improve our skilled workforce in the state of Michigan," Whitmer said at the July launch. "It not only benefits individuals who participate, but it makes sure that people who went through the criminal justice system don't return."

Program graduates will begin making about $17 an hour as apprentices, Bradley said. As the men advance through each stage of the five-step apprentice program, their pay will increase by about $2/hour while they also earn credits toward health care and retirement.

Addressing a group of inmates, Bradley said the men could eventually earn more than $200,000 a year if they advance their skills.

"This is the pathway out of this place," he said.

Jeff Gunnels is part of the initial LCTT class. In many ways, he is like the other men in the program. He served a long stretch in prison — almost a decade — for, in his case, armed robbery. In the LCTT program, he sees promise and purpose.

"We sit idle a lot in prison. To be able to put your hands on tools and work and to feel like a classmate instead of an inmate is big for us," he said.

Unlike most other pre-apprentices in Parnall, Gunnels was once a member of Local 17, a journeyman tree trimmer. He hit his left wrist with a topping saw in 2009. After surgery, he spent more than a year on heavy doses of pain killers.

"Embarrassingly, it spiraled out of control into an opioid addiction," Gunnels said. "I went from a husband and a tradesman and a father to somebody with his hand in a robbery."

Gunnels will be released on parole next April, and Pittman expects that Gunnels will not only get back to work, he will be a mentor to former inmates who are new to the trade.

"This program does give me hope that I can provide for my family and prove myself a man worthy of trust again," Gunnels said.

There are no shortcuts. They will be kept to the same high standards as anyone else, though it must be said the fall may well be farther for them. Bradley thinks there is real potential in a pool of people who spent too much time inside doing nothing who relish the idea of life with not a wall in sight.

"Some folks make bad decisions early on in life. I'm a full believer in second chances," Bradley said. "This is our chance to really them get off the ground."

Visit for a short video about the Michigan program helping to reduce crime and give a second chance to qualified inmates. Go to for more on the Vocational Village program.


James Son, left, pictured working with student Corey Boerner, is the lead instructor for the pre-apprenticeship line clearance tree trimmer program in the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., a joint project of Detroit Local 17 and utility DTE.

Credit: DTE Energy


Jeff Gunnels, a former journeyman tree trimmer in Local 17, said the program lets him, "prove myself a man worthy of trust again."

Credit: DTE Energy


The IBEW designed a special curriculum and built a climbing structure for the six-to-nine-month program. When released, participants will join Local 17's apprenticeship class and work at union contractors.

Credit: DTE Energy


Below, Local 17 Business Manager Dean Bradley meets with inmates and answers questions.

Credit: DTE Energy


Inmates learn rigging, climbing technique and how to use chainsaws.

Credit: DTE Energy