Michigan program trains prisoners to trim around power lines
DTE Energy is honored to share the Associated Press’ international story featuring their two tree trim programs, which are training and equipping local Michigan talent for an in-demand, union energy career. The programs’ success is possible through DTE Energy partnerships with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Michigan Department of Corrections City of Detroit Government.
Line trimmers “are extremely in demand, right now,” said James Shaw, business manager of Local 17 for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “As we start rebuilding the electrical infrastructure around the country, a lot of it is clearing the lines. Customers don’t want to be out of power.”
The union partners with DTE Energy, one of Michigan’s largest electric utilities, on the prison program as well as a tree-trimming training program.
Both are unique to the state and U.S., according to a DTE Energy spokesperson.
The utility says fallen trees and branches are responsible for 70% of its power outages. DTE Energy often hires trimmers from other states to clear lines during major outages.
“They follow the storms. That’s where the money is,” said Terrell Lockhart, a manager at DTE Energy. “All this money is going to out-of-staters. We can save that money. We can do good for the local community by making this upfront investment.”
An Aug. 29 storm with winds that topped 70 mph (113 kph) downed trees, branches and power lines leaving more than 400,000 homes and businesses in Michigan without power. DTE Energy reported that more than 231,000 of their customers were without power. The previous year, nearly a million utility customers in Michigan lost power during a major storm.
This fall, Michigan’s Public Service Commission ordered DTE Electric Co. and Jackson-based Consumers Energy to report their compliance with regulations — and past orders on outages and downed lines. The order was born out of growing concern about the lack of progress in reducing power outages and preventing the public’s contact with downed power lines.
“We still need a ton of tree trimmers,” Lockhart said. “Trees, they’re constantly growing.”
In April 2021, DTE Energy partnered with IBEW Local 17, the city of Detroit and nonprofits to recruit residents from the city and surrounding communities to enroll in its Tree Trim Academy. The goal is to train local residents on line clearing.
Half of the 59 graduates from the academy’s pilot class are Detroit residents. Forty-seven graduates are people of color and six are women.
So far, about 100 people have graduated from the academy. More than 80 graduates have been hired by tree trimming companies and are working on projects.
Students in the academy earn a daily stipend of $50 for the first two weeks of career prep curriculum, which then increases to $100 for the remaining five weeks of the program — when they’re taught line clearance, safety, use of tools and machinery, and climbing.
As a woodsman, pay starts at $17.50 per hour plus benefits. After two and a half years, when workers reach journeyman status, pay increases to nearly $32 per hour. They also receive benefits.
“Due to the large amount of overtime, a journeyman line clearance tree trimmer can make $70,000 to $120,000 per year, give or take,” Shaw said.
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