As wildfires in California increase, so does the need for arborists who clear vegetation around utility lines. This type of maintenance performed by utility line clearance arborists is crucial for managing electrical safety and preventing wildfires. Climate change, droughts, and fire suppression have led to larger wildfires becoming common, increasing the demand for utility arborists – one of California’s most hazardous, and most-needed, jobs.
This increasing need led to the Utility Line Clearance Arborist Program, a partnership between Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Butte College Contract Education. It offers sponsored training to students at eight California Community Colleges Contract Education units.
The five-week, 200-hour program, designed by industry experts with the college, gives entry-level students training that a utility line clearance arborist apprentice would learn in the first six months on the job. Graduates leave the program prepared to be safe and productive workers on a line clearance crew. The college districts connect the ready-to-hire graduates with employers to secure jobs.
The pilot program, completed in August 2020, has since rolled out to six colleges, including Butte College, Kern Community College District, College of the Sequoias, Folsom Lake College, Mendocino College, San Bernardino Community College District (SBCCD), and San Diego Community College District (SBCCD). Additional program implementations are scheduled this year for Santa Rosa Junior College, Shasta College, and College of the Canyons.
Larry Abernathy, appointed by the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) to take the lead in bringing industry experts together with Butte College and PG&E to create the program curriculum, said there will always be a need for utility line clearance arborist workers.
“I never knew what a recession was in my 49 years working in this industry because this work is essential for public safety,” said Abernathy.
Joining Forces to Fight Wildfires
Since 2012, wildfires have burned 12.7 million acres in California, according to an analysis by reporters from the Bay Area News Group. After the 2018 Paradise Camp Fire, one of the deadliest fires in California history, PG&E leadership met with Butte College and the UAA in June 2019. The company sought information about programs to attract, train, and retain utility arborists
The collaboration led to PG&E contracting with Butte College Contract Education for $6.25 million to lead the development and implementation of the statewide Utility Line Clearance Arborist training program. The contract supports training for 925 newly skilled apprentices through June 2023. The program has successfully delivered 28 classes, training 302 workers with six colleges since 2019.
Annie Rafferty, director of Contract Education, Training and Development at Butte College, led the efforts to bring together 125 stakeholders to develop the program. Committee members include the California Utilities, including PG&E, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric; Sacramento Municipal Utility District; Locals 1245, 47, and 465; California Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Offices; and the California Community Colleges Contract Education units.
The UAA (5,000 members), International Society of Arboriculture (25,000 members), and the Tree Care Industry Association (2,300 tree company owners) have maintained their commitment of providing industry training resources and public awareness necessary to advance the vision of establishing the standard in California, with a vision of expanding it across the nation.
“The power of this program is the partners and people who are the experts in this industry, shaping the outcomes of the program,” said Rafferty. “It is instrumental for California utilities and workers to get this type of training.”
Safety & Second Chances
San Bernardino Community College District (SBCCD) has about six types of trees on its campus, including palms and oaks, for trainees to use during the field experience portion of the program. This job is not for the faint of heart – trainees get hands-on experience in climbing, cutting, chipping, using a chainsaw, and driving a bucket truck.
“If you love the outdoors and have a sense of adventure, this is a career path to pursue,” said Abernathy, former VP/GM with The Davey Tree Expert Company and the UAA appointee.
SBCCD partners with the California Conservation Corps to recruit students. The corps program provides young adults ages 18–25 with a year of paid service to the State of California to work on environmental projects and respond to natural and man-made disasters.
Safety is of the utmost importance for this program.
Safety is of the utmost importance for this program. SBCCD partners with Mowbray’s Tree Service, a local family-owned company with nearly 50 years of experience in vegetation management, to teach the outdoor program curriculum. The college also provides instructors, so each cohort has a 4-to-1 ratio of students to instructors, said Timothy D. Vasquez, manager, workforce development, San Bernardino Community College District.
Students receive safety training and learn industry best practices in a dedicated classroom. Upon completion of the programs, students will have received training in techniques such as First Aid/CPR, OSHA 10, flagger training, fire safety prevention, and ropes, knots, and climbing.
SBCCD will start its eighth cohort in mid-May this year and was awarded four additional cohorts through June 2023. According to Vasquez, 68 trainees have completed the program to date, including 16 women and 12 Second Chance trainees. Each cohort includes one or two trainees on parole or probation because many of the employers they work with are Second Chance participants. SBCCD placed 41 trainees with jobs in the industry, including nine Second Chance graduates.
“This program is a good opportunity for justice-involved individuals to get job training and successfully reintegrate into the community,” said Deanna Krehbiel, interim executive director, Economic Development & Corporate Training, San Bernardino Community College District. “We look for Second Chance employers, so there is one less barrier these individuals have to face to start a better life.”
Utility Line Clearance & Wildfire Prevention
San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) was awarded two cohorts for the program and also partnered with the California Conservation Corps to recruit trainees. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, when the first cohort began in the summer of 2021, the classroom safety and best practices portion of the training took place at their partner’s location in National City. That continued with the second cohort, which completed the training in February 2022.
The outdoor instructional training took place at Balboa Park, said Caron Lieber, manager, Employee Training Institute, San Diego Community College District. The team partnered with a private entity that rented land in the park for an archery range. They sectioned off an area where trainees learned everything from tree climbing and chipping to chainsaw usage and aerial rescue techniques.
Butte College provided six trainers from Davey Tree Surgery Company and Utility Tree Service for the outdoor instructional training. An SDCCD instructor oversaw the safety portion of the training and supervised the day-to-day activities. According to Lieber, 24 trainees completed the program (5 women and 19 men), and all were offered jobs in the industry, and many had multiple job offers.
After the first cohort completed the program, Lieber said every graduate went to fight the Dixie Fire, which started on July 13, 2021, and burned 963,309 acres.
Bringing awareness to the industry while helping to meet the demand for workers is crucial.
Bringing awareness to the industry while helping to meet the demand for workers is crucial, said Dr. Laurie Coskey, CEO/executive director, San Diego College of Continuing Education Foundation. This program has been so successful that Coskey hopes to expand the program with a partnership with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E).
“SDG&E is involved with so many community-based initiatives in our region, with particular emphasis on communities that have been left behind. We are grateful for their partnership and hope they will fund the Utility Line Clearance Arborist program as an essential component of their Wildfire Mitigation programs,” said Coskey.
SDG&E, an active community member, is well aware of the danger that utility line clearance arborists face on the job. Kevin Geraghty, senior vice president, Electric Operations & Chief Safety Officer, was the keynote speaker at the graduation of the second cohort. Lieber said he encouraged the entry-level graduates to speak up about any safety issue while working because safety always comes first.