Nine students graduated at the San Bernardino Community College District after training for a career that few people would even be willing to try.
Basically, it involves handling a chainsaw while maneuvering around fully grown trees near utility lines. No problem, right? Not for San Bernardino resident Jesus Romero, 25, who said he likes the idea of working in a tree because it sets him apart.
“Your office is outside,” he said after the graduation ceremony. “I don’t know how other people see it, but as long as I’m outside, that is enough for me.”
In their 200 hours of training, class instructors set about “getting students comfortable with heights, with firmly attaching themselves, with moving about, and with rescues of other workers,” said William Burley, the lead trainer and an employee of Mowbray’s Tree Service in San Bernardino, one of the employers for the new graduates.
Safety is paramount, Burley said, since statistics show that this can be one of California’s most hazardous jobs. But someone has to prevent forest fires, right? So high-quality training is the priority.
The San Bernardino Community College District agreed to lead the Southern California portion of the training for utility/arborists. At the same time, Butte-Glenn Community College District teaches Northern California classes.
The collaboration has its roots in the trauma of November 2018, when a fire ripped through the mountain town of Paradise and the neighboring communities of Butte Creek, Magalia, and Concow in Butte County. In just six hours, the blaze burned 95% of the town’s buildings and eventually killed 85 people. Sparking utility equipment started the fire.
California lawmakers voted on a series of laws that will mean stricter standards for utilities and more attention to the way trees and utility lines intersect. Governor Gavin Newsom announced $75 million in state investments to implement new protocols. Pacific Gas & Electric, a major utility company, agreed to pay $6 million to support the training of 3,000 newly skilled utility/arborists across ten community colleges in California.
The trainees graduate as interns with jobs waiting for them to earn their hours and progress through the profession. In the beginning, they will make about $21 per hour. After 18 months, they can be certified as a Utility/Arborist.
The nine students in San Bernardino decked out in bright orange and yellow vests and COVID-19 masks, received certificates Friday, Feb. 26, with in-person congratulations from their instructors and online kudos from administrators and trustees from the San Bernardino Community College District.
Quoting basketball great Michael Jordan, Assemblymember Eloise Reyes congratulated students for seeking a career that calls for a lot of skill. “You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them,” she said. “Now it is up to you to share your story and how you overcame your obstacles. I will share your story in Sacramento.”
Other partners contributed to the kudos, including the Utility Arborist Association, the Tree Care Industry Association, IBEW Local 47, Mowbray’s Tree Services, North American Training Solutions, California Conservation Corps, and SoCal Edison.
“We admire you for the work you will do,” said Dr. Anne Viricel, chair of the SBCCD Board of Trustees. She said her late husband was a wildland firefighter. “I know how important arborists are to keeping firefighters safe.”
SBCCD Director of Workforce Development Deanna Krehbiel said this is an educational collaboration that will keep communities safer from wildfire. There will be more classes of students coming through the San Bernardino Community College District and going out to work for utility companies and others who try to manage the interface between trees and electrical wires.
“You did it!” she said to the graduates. “This was all you!”