How cutting trees can raise Detroiters’ wages

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As a graduate of DTE’s tree-trimming program and a union apprentice, Tinita Greene will enter a male-dominated industry in which she can command six figures for her work. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

Every member of DTE Energy and IBEW Local 17’s tree-trimming academy has found a job in less than a month. 

To create the first cohort of its kind in Detroit, the energy company partnered with the City of Detroit and local nonprofit Focus: HOPE for a six-week job-training program for metro Detroiters who want to become woodsmen and tree workers. Only one woman graduated from the first cohort of 10 individuals, and now Tinita Greene has two apprenticeship job offers to consider. 

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The tree-trimming academy is located on the city’s west side near Rouge Park. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

Greene, who wants to become a maintenance planner, has a varied background, which she says is due to her love of learning. Planners create the roadmap for tree-trimming teams. Balancing energy reliability — what should be cut to protect power lines — with the sustainability and health of the tree. 

The Highland Park Community High School and Henry Ford Community College graduate says she’s a lifelong learner and the tree-trimming academy was just her next step in diverse interests. She’s worked in a bakery, the automotive industry, an assisted-living facility, and now tree-trimming. She also wonders why more women don’t work in skilled labor. 

Located on Detroit’s west side, near Rouge Park, the tree-trimming academy has a 60-foot structure that allows students to learn how to tie knots and belay to the ground safely, while identifying trees and learning how to trim unnecessary or hazardous branches. The tree-trimming program, which includes wraparound services like child care and transportation, is geared to support 200 job candidates by 2024. Students who complete the six-week line clearance program will move onto the IBEW Local 17’s apprenticeship pipeline. 

Greene wants more women to consider tree trimming. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

Metro Detroit residents are the target market for the program, and DTE hopes to have 60 graduates by the end of the year. Once in the workforce, tree-trimming academy graduates will most likely remove branches and trees from power lines or structures during or due to inclement weather so that residents can stay safe and retain power. 

The training program pays participants $50 a day for the first two weeks, then $100 each day until graduation. Paid apprenticeship programs typically last two-and-a-half years, or 5,000 hours of work, and offer wages beginning at $30 an hour. 

BridgeDetroit interviewed Tinita Greene to learn about her experience as the only Black woman to graduate from the class. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tree trimmers climb 60-foot structures at the academy and use gear similar to rock climbers. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

BridgeDetroit: What made you interested in the tree-trimming program, and why was this a career path you wanted to explore?

Greene: Ten to 12 years ago, I was at a family member’s house and a man was trimming and cutting down a tree. I stood there and watched for about 15 minutes. While he was cleaning up, I asked him, ‘What are you doing? What’s this job you’re doing?’, and he said, ‘I’m an arborist.’

I was absolutely fascinated. So, that evening, I went home and I pulled up a dictionary — that’s how long ago it was, that I had a book dictionary — and I looked up ‘arborist.’ It’s a person who maintains trees, makes sure they are functioning and thriving. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I want to do that.’ But back then I had no information.

Terrell Lockheart, who worked with Greene, is a manager at DTE’s tree-trimming program. Lockheart also works with DTE’s tree-trimming academy at Parnall Correctional facility in Jackson. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

BridgeDetroit: Heights scare people. Is this a dangerous job? How do you keep yourself safe? And what are some of the tools you had to learn to prevent accidents from happening?

Greene: It can be dangerous, however, they tell you wholeheartedly to rely on your equipment. Constantly check it and have faith that it’s going to hold you up. Do you like roller coasters?

BridgeDetroit: Yes, absolutely.

Greene: It’s no different than being up on the highest point of that roller coaster. If you can do that, this will be a breeze for you.

BridgeDetroit: This is a six-week training program. What was your experience like, and what did you learn each week?

Greene: The first two weeks were all virtual, no microphone and no video, just us listening to customer service training. They taught everyone how to use a computer, and we got to know a lot about Focus: HOPE, DTE and the union. The next two weeks were at the tree-trimming academy, and it was the first time we got to see each other.

We instantly bonded. It was so crazy, but I think it was because of those first two weeks.

We were helping each other — learning knots, very important. We learned how to get up the structure, how to get up in the trees and tree identification — which was my favorite part and led me to want to be a maintenance planner.

Then we did commercial driver’s license training the last week, or two, if you needed it. I already had (my license), so it was just a refresher for me.

I was so proud of (the cohort). We did so good. Then we had the ceremony for graduation on May 28, and now here we are. Everybody is working. Except for me, I’m still looking because I’m waiting on a planner position. (Between the interview and publish date of this story Greene was offered two apprenticeship positions to consider.)

As a planner, Greene will create the roadmap for tree-trimming teams. She helps balance energy reliability — what should be cut to protect power lines — with the sustainability and health of the tree. (BridgeDetroit photo by Cybelle Codish)

BridgeDetroit: Since you couldn’t see each other for the first two weeks, were you surprised to see that you were the only woman in the group by week three?

Greene: No. I think that supposed “men jobs” are the best.

I also went and got my automotive technology degree, and I started working at Toyota. I would assemble and disassemble transmissions. … I did that for some years, and I loved it. I was the only woman. I’m usually the only one, if not two or three women, in a sea of men. They have the best jobs. It’s crazy.

BridgeDetroit: What do you mean by ‘men jobs’ being the best jobs? Is that based on pay, hours?

Greene: Hours and the work. For example, welding. There’s not a lot of women welders, yet welding is awesome. It’s physically demanding, however, women can do it. If I can do it, any woman can do it. However, I was in a sea of men again. It baffles me. Why am I the only, or one of few, women in a group of men? When I was doing transmissions, I was great at it — because we usually have smaller hands and we think differently. We think kind of meticulously, and when we do something, it’s usually in an order. So all of these aspects on top of being fabulous, period, why aren’t we doing all these other fabulous things?  

BridgeDetroit: Definitely. So out of all your experiences, jobs and training programs, have any of the marketing around those experiences targeted women in the workforce?

Greene: I don’t think it’s an actual thought. I don’t think it’s something people actually say, ‘Women can do this.’ I just don’t think it’s thought about. If you’re a person, you can do (the job).

The tree trim program is geared to support 200 job candidates by 2024.

BridgeDetroit: OK, I hear you. So the job you want to do requires the tree identification part of the training that you also said was your favorite. Tell me more about that. Why did you like this aspect so much?

Greene: There are so many ways to identify an actual tree, the bark, the leaves, the twigs, the ground, everything can help you identify a tree. Most people see it as somewhere to sit down and get some shade, but it’s so much more than that. And they’re everywhere. I didn’t think that I would like it as much as I did, but I was out there and I was bringing stuff back. I found out what a hickory tree looks like, and it smells like candy. It smells sweet and it is pretty with a pink and white flower. It smells like you just walked into a bakery.

“I was the only woman. I’m usually the only one, if not two or three women, in a sea of men. They have the best jobs. It’s crazy.” – Tinita Greene

BridgeDetroit: So how have the last six weeks, or this program, rather, made a difference to you? Professionally, socially, emotionally?

Greene: I’ve learned another skill. That cannot be taken away from me. And I’ve learned that there is something else out there that I like. I have a lot of interests and it’s great to add another. Identifying trees, never would have thought it would be an interest. Now, I get to the park and I’m looking at the trees and I’m identifying oaks — I was trying to find a hickory, (laughs), I need one of those in my life.

BridgeDetroit: If there was someone out in the world who wanted to learn more about this program, the things that you’ve learned and experienced, what would you want them to know?

Greene: They should know that anyone can do this — man or woman. It’s a physically demanding job, so don’t come in here thinking you’re just going to sit down. It’s demanding and long hours, however, it’s worth it. You can be the one to help hundreds or thousands of people. Because we’ve learned from coronavirus, when things are down for too long, we get displaced. We don’t want the power to go out. We can be the ones to help in that situation. So if that’s what you’re looking for, if you want to help somebody, this would be good for you. I just need more ladies to get (involved). Step up, ladies.  

For more information about the Tree Trimming Academy visit the program’s website.

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