New DTE program trains tree trimmers in Detroit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
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Job-seekers unafraid of heights have a new opportunity to climb the career ladder — starting with trees.

DTE Energy Co. on Thursday introduced its new Tree Trim Academy in Detroit. The six-week program seeks to prepare workers, especially Detroiters, to become tree trimmers needed to help prevent power outages.

The new Tree Trim Academy seeks to prepare better workers to become tree trimmers whose work helps prevent power outages.

Applicants apply through nonprofit Focus: HOPE for the program. It comes with no financial cost, and students earn a stipend of $50 per day for the first two weeks and $100 per day for the final four. The academy has graduated its first 10 students, nine of whom already have jobs lined up. The job can position workers for other employment in the industry, including overhead line work, at substations and more.

The academy includes two weeks with Focus: HOPE where students develop computer and financial literacy and customer service training and graduate as customer service professionals.

"You want to send a message to Detroiters that you are welcome in these jobs?" Mayor Mike Duggan said. "Why can't we do the training here?"

The next two weeks are spent training to climb trees and tie knots at the academy in Detroit's Warrendale neighborhood near Rouge Park, where DTE bought 2 acres and the city permits the use of 1,500 acres of forestry.

"You want to send a message to Detroiters that you are welcome in these jobs?" Mayor Mike Duggan said during a news conference on Thursday. "Why can't we do the training here? This is the kind of great leadership we had."

Students during the final two weeks learn how to drive a box truck at the U.S. Truck Driving Academy and can earn their Class B commercial driver's license.

That part was the most difficult, said Darell Chapman, one of the Tree Trim Academy graduates, because he'd never driven a stick shift before. By the end of the week, though, he felt confident and passed the driving test. Now, Chapman, 38, of Detroit, is one of four from the graduating cohort to be hired by the Davey Tree Expert Co. in Livonia.

Tinita Greene (left) and Darell Chapman are among the first graduates of the Tree Trim Academy in Detroit

"I see this as a career," said Chapman, who had worked in retail for 13 years. "I think it's opened doors for me in so many ways. I hope to become a journeyman and one day a linesman. There are so many ways I can use these skills."

Chapman will start on the ground this week as a woodsman, earning $16 per hour, but with his experience at the academy, he will be on a fast track through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 17's Line Clearance Tree Trimming Program. That includes a nine-day boot camp similar to the training done at the Tree Trim Academy.

The apprentices who pass will get 5,000 on-the-job work at $18 per hour and monthly training sessions at the IBEW's facility in St. Clair County's Wales Township. Completion positions the apprentices as tree trimming journeymen with a base salary of $60,000, health-care and retirement benefits and overtime opportunities.

Terrell Lockhart is the manager of tree trimming for DTE's distribution operations.

Traditionally, only about 32% of apprentices pass the boot camp, and few are Detroiters, said Terrell Lockhart, manager of tree trimming for DTE's distribution operations. The Tree Trim Academy seeks to improve that outcome and the diversity of workers. Its first cohort began with 15 students, giving it a 67% graduation rate. The academy expects to have three more classes of 15 to 20 students in 2021 and four or six cohorts annually in future years.

"This is clearly a representation of the nexus we want to see for our city," city council member Janeé Ayers said. "If you change one person's life, you change their community, you change their family, and essentially we start to change our entire world."

The tree trim companies contract with DTE, which says 70% of power outages are from interference with trees. The company has 1,100 tree trimmers on its property each day as it seeks to boost reliability. They often are a valuable pool for overhead line workers since they have experience working at high heights and around high-voltage wires, DTE CEO Jerry Norcia said.

Jerry Norcia is the CEO of DTE Energy Co.

"It’s good to have an internal complement," he said, noting the company hires 40 to 60 graduates from the IBEW's apprentice program a year. "There are anywhere from 400 to 500 highly skilled line workers we have sourced internally."

With more electric vehicles hitting the road, the reliability of the electric grid continues to be of growing importance, added Dan Scripps, chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission: "This really is where the rubber meets the road in terms of building the future."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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