It’s no secret to companies in the tree care business that quality, skilled employees are hard to come by. What’s more of a mystery is coming up with successful strategies for finding skilled labor.
“It’s an issue for anyone in the tree industry,” says Arthur Batson Jr., president of Lucas Tree Experts, which is based in Maine and has roughly 550 employees working throughout the U.S. and Canada providing tree services for utility, residential and commercial customers. He says the labor force in tree work (and in construction and related fields) “comes and goes.” “We’re seeing a scarcity now that five or six years ago we didn’t,” says Batson, attributing that mainly to the change in the overall economy. When housing construction is down, that leads to a greater number of available workers — workers who are usually pretty good — in the tree industry, he points out. But when housing rebounds, there can be a shortage in tree care. “We tend to be a little lower on the wage scale, so sometimes you lose those workers when the economy gets hot. Labor is often scarce, but it gets even scarcer.”
Like most successful companies, Lucas Tree Experts has developed various methods to continually attract quality employees. “And retain them,” emphasizes Batson. “I think that the labor shortage is not just about attracting employees but also finding ways to keep them on board.” In fact, he breaks successful labor practices into three categories: attracting employees to apply, making good decisions about who to let in the door, and then keeping the good ones. “All three can make you fail, or make you successful,” says Batson.
As far as attracting quality employees, Lucas Tree Service’s main strategy is to identify every forestry-related program in the areas that the company operates, whether it’s run by a high school, community college or university. “We reach out to those programs and try to integrate ourselves by volunteering, offering our operation personnel to work with those programs, so we’re more closely related to them. We know the number of students who are coming into them and going out of them. And in certain places, we’ve set up scholarships and internships to qualified students,” explains Batson. “You bring some of those students on board; some stay, some don’t, but it sends out vibrations to the next class that there’s a scholarship they can apply for. That’s been a good source for us to try to attract qualified people.”
Batson emphasizes that making this approach really work takes more than just showing up at a school for a job fair in the spring. It requires a concerted and ongoing effort to form a relationship with the school and the students in that forestry-related program. “You really have to get to know who the professor is, or the teachers. And we’ve donated equipment that they can use in their teaching and trainings, whether it be chainsaws or a used chipper — things that will be useful tools for them and their programs,” he explains. “And we offer our expertise. Maybe it’s for a chainsaw safety training or aerial rescue, to try to assist with and become a part of their programs.”
Lucas Tree Experts also takes full advantage of technology to find employees, as well. “These days, you need to use the social media platforms to attract candidates,” Batson says. And look for other opportunities as well, including working with programs for military veterans who are looking for civilian employment.
Apprenticing in arboriculture
A new tactic that some companies are taking to ensure steady access to trained employees is to actively play a role in that training process by formally taking part in an apprenticeship program. The first program was created several years ago in Wisconsin, when a collection of tree care companies from the Wisconsin Arborists Association, as well as industry organization TCIA, worked with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to form an Arborist Apprenticeship Program. One of the companies involved, Wachtel Tree Science, became the first to officially enroll two of its employees in the program in June 2016.
“It’s a state program. And the state was looking for viable careers for people,” explains Dave Scharfenberger, president of Wachtel. The challenge, he says, was to get state buy-in by showing that tree care offers a variety of viable career options, especially for those who might want to work outside. “When we showed the state the number of people in Wisconsin who are working in tree care, some of the average wages, the fact that there are both city and private employees in this profession, they began to realize that this is an industry that wasn’t on their radar screens the way others were.” It’s pretty common in every state to be able to get an apprenticeship to become an electrician or a plumber, he points out, “and it’s the tree care industry’s goal to get arborists there also.”
The program runs for 42 months and provides apprentices with a blend of on-the-job work experience and specially designed class work at an area technical college. While it took hard work and a group effort to get the apprenticeship program established, now, from the perspective of an individual company, “there’s not a lot that you have to do,” says Scharfenberger. “There’s a little bit of time to understand your commitment as a company, you [and the apprentice] both sign contracts of commitment to each other.” Wachtel Tree Science, for example, pays for the classes (at an area technical college), and also pays its employees in the program for a certain number of hours per semester when they take classes. “And we were able to work with the instructor to bunch that time into appropriate times of the year, so they’re not gone during really busy times. So, when we’re a little slower, that’s when some of these classes happen,” Scharfenberger adds.
The goal is to train these employees to be ready to make a career in tree care. “They’re going to be arborists when they come out, so they get exposure to plant health care, climbing, all of the ground work. When they come out, they’ll be ground arborists, well along the way to transitioning to a climbing arborist,” he explains.
The commitment runs both ways. The company bears the financial investment in getting the apprentices trained, while the employee commits to completing the program and working hard along the way. There is no commitment in terms of a time frame that they must work for the sponsoring company after completing the program. “They aren’t indentured servants or anything like that,” says Scharfenberger. “But history shows, when you look at apprenticeship programs in general across the country, is that these programs help graduate trained people that do tend to be very loyal to the company that put them through, as long as the company is decent with them.” While there is not yet a long track record for tree care apprentices, he notes that the retention rate for apprenticeship programs in general is very high. “That’s what I, as an employee, look for,” says Scharfenberger.
For that reason, he — and others in the industry — would like to see this type of program continue to expand. “TCIA has been instrumental behind the scenes in getting other states to adopt it, and getting the federal government to accept what Wisconsin has done, so that it becomes more of a common thing to have an apprenticeship program,” says Scharfenberger.
Because the scarcity of skilled labor is a challenge faced by almost every tree care company, some believe that it will take an orchestrated, collective, industry-wide effort to really address it. One example of tree care companies coming together to do just that is taking place in Atlanta. There, a handful of companies joined forces to form the Greater Atlanta Tree Care Sector Partnership with a mission of creating a training program that would attract employees into and get them ready for careers in tree care.
Jamie Blackburn, vice president and chief operating officer of Arborguard Tree Specialists, one of the companies involved in the effort, credits the leadership of Brigitte Orrick, TCIA’s director of workforce development, with helping to get the program off the ground in the face of several challenges. Orrick called together an initial meeting of eight reputable tree care companies in the Atlanta metro area about two years ago, says Blackburn. “She explained the issues that go along with launching any type of training program. I think that some companies had this impression that there was this magic wand that somehow could be waved and all of a sudden we’d have this degree program with a great instructor that would be turning out 50 workers a semester. And that’s a little bit utopian,” he states.
Instead, the group was faced with the reality that there was little tax money in the state of Georgia to fund a program through the technical college system. “It’s just hard to convince them to launch new programs,” says Blackburn. In addition, statistics that were available through the U.S. Department of Labor about wages, career pathways, earning potential, etc., in the tree care industry also included lower-paying jobs in utilities and logging. Because that data didn’t accurately reflect what workers in the industry were actually making, it was difficult to get grants to create a training program, or buy-in from colleges. “They need to be able to convince parents that their kids are going to be coming out of the program making a livable wage,” summarizes Blackburn.
So the effort in Atlanta was much more complicated than it was in a place like Wisconsin, where there was formal support from the state and educational institutions. But undaunted, TCIA’s Orrick and some of the Atlanta tree care companies pressed ahead looking for solutions. That focused on working with nonprofit groups, such as Atlanta CareerRise, the Atlanta Regional Commission and United Way of Greater Atlanta. “We were able to convince them in meeting with them about the real wage data, that we really have a labor shortage, and that we really can put people to work,” says Blackburn. Also, a group called the Greening Youth Foundation was already working to train people for outdoor jobs in things like vegetation management and trail maintenance in parks.
What resulted of all these discussions was the Arborist Workforce Training program, funded by local grands and run at a nearby Greening Youth Foundation facility. That six-week program includes training from North American Training Solutions instructor Warren Williams and covers everything from OSHA and industry safety standards to basic arboriculture operations based on TCIA’s Tree Care Academy Modules. Participating tree care companies offer their expertise occasionally and agree to interview each of the program participants once they earn their certificates. Two groups of 20 students have now come through the program; Blackburn says that Arborguard hired two of those students and 18 of the 20 have been placed with a participating tree care company. That’s a tremendous improvement over the hiring rate when interviewing job applicants responding to ads placed on venues like Craigslist, for example, he notes.
As a company, Blackburn says that Arborguard’s interest was in helping to launch a program “that would raise the floor of our entry-level applicants. We know that there’s no program that’s going to turn out experienced climbers or crew leaders; we have to develop that person ourselves. But if we can raise the floor of our entry-level applicants through some kind of certificate or apprenticeship program, then we can shorten the amount of time that it takes us to develop a climber from, say, three years down to 18 months. That’s a huge win for us.” And in addition to specific tree industry skills, like safe chipper operation, students taking part in educational training programs also learn the sort of “soft” skills they’ll need to be successful in their careers — things like simply showing up on time, how to look someone in the eye and shake their hand, how to hold a bank account and more. When applicants to a program are screened for these skills, and then the skills are developed, those who complete the program are much more ready to be productive employees, he points out.
Blackburn notes that there are a number of other similar initiatives around the country, each varying depending on how much support and interest there is from state government agencies and educational institutions. But, he says, as was proven in Atlanta, when tree care companies work together, there are many different approaches that can be taken to help draw in and train the next generation of tree care industry employees.