Career Pathways in Tree Care

One of the definitions for a pathway is “a way of achieving a specified result,” or “a course of action.” Accordingly, a career pathway outlines the specific steps needed in a progression toward a career goal. This article will discuss career pathways for tree care.

Throughout the course of my career as an arborist, I’ve done many things. My career pathway has followed a typical model found in tree care of starting in field operations and moving into management and leadership. (See Graphic 1) Most recently, my leadership role in a large, commercial tree care company has highlighted the importance of talent development in the tree care industry.

We all are aware of the industry talent shortage and the implications of this. In my role, the talent shortage has reinforced the need for strong recruiting, retention and development programs within my organization. Accordingly, many of the activities I focus on are related to these topics. One thing I have discovered is that, to attract and retain the next generation of arborists, we need to provide them a clear path that relates to their specific career aspirations as arborists. People want a pathway.

“Employers who want to attract new talent develop career pathways that help people understand how many amazing choices there are in the industry and what it will be like to work as an arborist.”

Bill Owens

Employers who want to attract new talent should develop career pathways that help people understand how many amazing choices there are in the industry and what it will be like to be an arborist. Talent-development activities such as career pathing serve as both a recruiting and retention tool for employers. By articulating a clear development path and supporting employee development, an employer has the best chance of maximizing the return on investment (ROI) of their development programs. Specifically, a clear career pathway helps employers develop employees to their maximum potential, driving engagement and mutual value creation. This is because performance-management activities like career pathing align individual goals with that of the organization.

Graphic 1: My career pathway has followed a standard model found in tree care of starting in field operations and moving into management and leadership. Graphics courtesy of the author.

When I talk with people about what I do, I tell them how much I love being an arborist. One of the things I like the most is the variety of career paths available for an arborist. There are an amazing number of choices and specializations. Like many, I started dragging brush and climbing. After many years, I worked my way into management and leadership. My career path was specific to my goals, and I was fortunate enough to learn along the way as I pursued my interests.

I have taken many steps to get where I am today, including earning an advanced degree and attaining industry certifications and specializations. Because of my love for arboriculture, I’m always happy to share my perspectives on what works, or at least what has worked for me. In this article, I share what I have learned about career pathing and use a general tree care (GTC) pathway example to illustrate how to apply the principles to your situation. (See Graphic 1)

Illustrating career pathways in our industry

Generally, I view pathways in arboriculture as consisting of two broad avenues – field work and management. The foundation of any of the pathways is found in the principles of arboricultural field work. From there, a variety of pathways emerge. These include GTC, consulting, plant health care (PHC), utility forestry, urban forestry and many others. The key to creating one or more unique career pathways lies in your specific business model or service that you provide.

To create your company’s own pathways, start by defining roles, tasks and associated skill sets. For example, a typical tree care company performing GTC services will have structure that includes field positions and management positions. Field positions include grounds worker, climber and crew leader. Management roles include sales arborist and some type of administrative role, such as branch manager or business owner. (See Graphic 1) Although this pathway is very common, there are many other possible pathways in tree care. For example, smaller companies might have one person fulfilling multiple management responsibilities, or one person fulfilling multiple field responsibilities. Regardless of the specific structure of your operation, to develop a pathway, you must define the tasks and associated skill sets for each role. Role requirements are the cornerstone of a well-defined career path.

Start by listing all the skills required in each role. Once the skills are listed, you can define what tasks need to be performed in each role. Then you have the basis to create a unique career path to suit your business needs. Specifically, you should define the roles according to how you deliver your services. What does each person performing in each role need to know? What does the person in each role need to do to support the business? Once these questions have been answered, the employer will have the foundation for creating a career path based on their unique business model.

Define the way

With the role requirements defined, the employer can create the career path for the individual. The pathway consists of the steps required to progress through all the roles in your organization, from the bottom to the top. (See Graphic 2)

By defining the structure and the skills associated with each role, you have an objective way to measure performance. Once you have established the role-specific performance criteria, you have an objective way to create milestones for performance. Proficiency in a role is a signal of readiness for another step. In the example career path, each role has a designation. Field roles are represented by F-1 through F-3, management by M-1 and M-2. This example career path illustrates what each individual needs to do in order to advance their career.

For example, a Grounds Worker proficient in F-1 skills may be eligible to take the next step to F-2 (Climber). In this way, a step is taken along the career pathway. Similarly, a proficient F-2 (Climber) may express interest in becoming an M-1 (Sales Arborist). According to this model, the F-2 (Climber) must work their way through the F-3 (Crew Leader) position and demonstrate proficiency in that role before they are eligible to move into the M-1 (Sales Arborist) position.

Graphic 2: Example of a career pathway model. F-1 through F-3 are field positions. M-1 and M-2 are management positions.

The employer also may wish to incorporate specialties and certifications as part of the career pathway. For example, the F-2 (Climber) who wishes to move to F-3 (Crew Leader) may be required to attain the TCIA Qualified Crew Leader (QCL) designation. This will ensure that individuals moving from F-2 to F-3 (Climber to Crew Leader) will have demonstrated proficiency in skills associated with the F-3 role. Similarly, the employer may require arborist certification to move from the field to management (F-3 to M-1).

Because everyone’s career goals are different, it is up to the organization to discuss and define how far each person wants to go and the steps needed for them to develop to their maximum potential.

Plot the path

Plotting the path for the individual is based on mutually agreed upon goals between the employer and the employee. Ideally, the manager should help the employee set goals to define their unique pathway. Talent-development
professionals call this an individual development plan (IDP). An IDP outlines the steps that need to be taken to reach short- and long-term goals. Creating an IDP requires an honest discussion between the employer and the employee. The IDP maps out specific goals and, like any other type of goals, they should be specific, measurable, attainable and timebound. In this way, the IDP plots an individual’s career path and puts a framework around each step.

Further, a comprehensive IDP will include some type of feedback mechanism so the employee knows how they are progressing along the path. When done properly, the IDP can be used to set goals, establish timeframes and document skills acquisition through established roles and levels. Additionally, an IDP can be used to deliver feedback about progress toward goals or to re-evaluate goals. As such, an IDP is documentation of steps taken along a career path and the associated milestones reached along the way.

Support the journey

Given that there are mutual benefits in talent-development activities like career pathing, the employer must decide and communicate how they are going to support the journey. A common way to support employee development is with employer-supported training. Additionally, many employers will support the attainment of qualifications and certifications. You can do this by establishing set criteria for support in these activities. An employer may offer to support the certification process by paying for the study guide or workshop fees associated with the credential. Additionally, the employer may reimburse the individual for test fees upon earning the certification. Lastly, a promotion or pay raise might be associated with the attainment of the certification.

“By taking these steps in career pathing, organizations can increase employee engagement, because everyone is supported in developing to their maximum potential.” Bill Owens

In any case, it is important to let people know how they will be supported in their development, so they can make an informed decision about what they choose to pursue. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement, because the expanded skill set associated with the certification will inevitably lead to improvement in on-the-job performance. Additionally, it can be celebrated as the successful completion of another milestone in an individual’s career path.

Putting it all together

Putting together one or more career paths for a business involves outlining the specific steps in a career progression customized to the employer’s unique business model or service. In this way, career paths in arboriculture are unique expressions of employee and employer goals. There are a variety of interesting career paths reflected by the variety of ways arborists care for trees. Career pathing can be used as both a recruiting and retention tool to enhance skills development and maximize the ROI of development programs.

To create your own pathways, outline the steps in career progression based on your business. Different services and phases of tree care require different skill sets with different associated roles. In this way, each operation will have a unique career path. It is useful to classify roles and skill sets between field and management levels. Outlining the steps helps give an individual a solid understanding of what progress looks like and how to advance. Employers can help define the way by creating performance criteria for each role that mirrors the career path. A career path is documented with an IDP that helps frame goals and incorporates feedback mechanisms so people know how they are progressing.

Finally, to support the journey, let employees know what type of development assistance is available. There are a range of options for this, including in-house training and external certifications and qualifications. Inevitably, individual progression along a career path will help both the employer and the employee, because newly acquired skills can drive value across the board. By taking all these steps in career pathing, organizations can increase employee engagement, because everyone is supported in developing to their maximum potential along a well-defined career path.

Bill Owen, CTSP, QCL, is director of operations with BrightView Tree Care Services – NorCal Tree in Martinez, California, a division of BrightView Tree Care Services, a 37-year TCIA member company based in Calabasas, Calif.

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