Apprenticeship Churns Out Line-Clearance Tree Workers in California

Apprenticeship-program participants received guidance from experienced professionals, including trainers from TCIA member companies such as Mowbray’s Tree Service. All images courtesy of Annie Rafferty, Butte College.

“Whoops” rang out as each trainee walked to the front of the class to claim a certificate. Those 11 happy souls had just graduated from a program at the College of the Sequoias in Tulare, California, with a completion document in Utility Line Clearance Arborist Training.

To earn the credential, they took a five-week, 200-hour program that was a combination of classroom and field experience, with safety lessons focused primarily on learning skills, standards and best practices for electrical hazards, safe equipment handling, tree climbing, cutting, chipping and job-site setup.

“At the very end of the class, people who had never touched a chain saw, bucket truck or climbing rope all became adept,” says Angus Barnhart-Usedom, lead trainer for the program and safety and training supervisor for Mowbray’s Tree Service, a 23-year TCIA member company based in San Bernardino, Calif. “The progress was phenomenal. All these things I did when starting in the industry, it was very unsafe. Every single person asked a lot of questions, and really progressed.”

California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) utility funded the program with a grant, as it seeks to hire much-needed arborists to help the company keep utility lines free of hazardous vegetation.

In addition to their program certificate, students received their Department of Labor (DOL) OSHA 10-Hour Training card and certificates in First Aid & Safety, Flagger and TCIA’s Electrical Hazards Awareness Program (EHAP).

“You are joining a forest of good for the good of the forest,” Ed Carpenter, president of North American Training Solutions (NATS), a 13-year TCIA corporate member company based in Douglas, Massachusetts, told graduates. They could be dropped off anywhere in the world and have a job within a day, he added enthusiastically.

“I saw a lot of growth, and some people even said, ‘Hey, I think I know what I’m doing here,’” says curriculum developer Brian Burgess.

The program was the result of a network of resources and people coming together that culminated in this particular graduation, the first “cohort” in California’s Central Valley under the aegis of the California Community College Utility Arborist Workforce Readiness Program.

Many credited Annie Rafferty, director of workforce training and development for Butte College in Oroville, Calif., for taking the lead. Rafferty’s partnership-engagement skills brought no fewer than 26 stakeholders together to develop the program.

“I think what is instrumental is all the stakeholders and partners – the Utility Arborist Association (UAA), TCIA, utilities and utility contractors – involved,” says Rafferty. “The power of this program is the partners and people who are the experts in this industry shaping the outcomes of this program. This is instrumental for California utilities and all the workers to get this type of training.”

Butte College holds the project responsibility and is fiscal agent in working with PG&E to implement the statewide training program with 10 California community colleges that offer affordable workplace-safety programs. The contract runs through June 2022.

Implementation is going great after being delayed by the pandemic and is now moving along quickly, says Rafferty, adding there are seven colleges on board. “The goal of training 1,200 workers contracted for this year looks good,” she adds.

The program is paying off. Six out of seven students who graduated from the Mendocino Community College program are hired, and one is going to an interview, says Rafferty, who is also an executive leader of UpSkill California, a resource to support contract-education practitioners statewide.

Members of the most recent cohort in Tulare have all expressed interest in being hired right away, according to Barnhart-Usedom. “Who wants a job immediately following this class?” he asked his trainees, and all hands shot up.

Arborist profession

The program also potentially sets trainees on a path to develop a career in arboriculture with the help of TCIA.

In addition to learning the fundamentals, such as chain-saw and chipper use, apprentice candidates learned to work ropes and pulleys.

“The utility-arborist program in California is using Year One of our new Arborist Apprenticeship Training program for its curriculum, along with TCIA’s EHAP,” says Bob Rouse, TCIA’s senior vice president of programs and services. “This is a new training program we developed as part of a complete revision of our Tree Care Academy Training Program.”

The Year One curriculum covers:
• Introduction to Arboriculture and General Arboricultural Work Safety;
• Arborist Equipment Fundamentals, such as chain-saw and chipper use;
• Introduction to Aerial Work, addressing both aerial-lift use and tree climbing;
• Introduction to Tree and Shrub Identification;
• Introduction to Tree Biology; and
• Pruning Fundamentals.

TCIA also filed Arborist Apprenticeship guideline standards that were approved by the U.S. DOL, but few companies or colleges sponsor a formally registered arborist apprenticeship at this time, according to Rouse. “While our Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program does provide the related learning curriculum needed for a registered Arborist Apprenticeship program, it is also perfect as curriculum for other workforce-
readiness programs in arboriculture.”

Need for utility-clearance arborists

Judy de Freitas, PG&E community-relations principal, congratulated the grads, adding, “Women rock in this field,” a comment aimed at the four female trainees in the group. “It will provide you with lots of opportunity, and PG&E appreciates the training, which means safety, which is the most important thing.”

Initially, PG&E reached out to the UAA to find out how to set up programs that could attract, train and retain additional utility arborists as quickly as possible.

“Starting in 2019, there was a need from the utility companies to put on 3,000 new workers in California, and that was part of the reason this initiative was pushed forward,” says Larry Abernathy, former VP/GM with The Davey Tree Expert Company, an accredited, 48-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio. He retired in 2018 after 49 years with the company. UAA reached out to Abernathy to take the lead on the project.

“That’s what got the ball rolling, and what helped was, because of my years in the industry and all the contacts, I was able to bring people together for Butte College,” he says. The program has been up and running since July of 2019. He adds, “I feel like I’m back in a full-time job again.”

When Abernathy first talked to staff at Butte, the college had been affected by a major forest fire and had set up a course in the use of chippers and chain saws to do fire restoration and debris cleanup, “and when I came on as a resource with them, I led them down the path for the use of the industry,” he says.

An apprentice candidate undercuts a small tree under the watchful eye of a trainer.

Abernathy explains that, through PG&E’s $13.5 billion bankruptcy settlement, PG&E has provided funding through June of 2022 to support the training of 3,000 pre-apprentices. “Without its support, we would not be this far along. It does take money,” he says.

Abernathy’s job was to give entry-level students a program that a utility arborist would learn in the first six months on the job. “In California, to be a qualified, line-clearance tree trimmer you have to have 18 months of on-the-job training. This course gives concentrated programming, but does not give credit for those six months,” says Abernathy, noting he would like to see some of that credit given to the students.

He also leaned on his contacts at TCIA. “Finding content for a manual was a bit of a challenge, because some companies’ training material, while very good, is also proprietary,” he says.

“When we reached out to TCIA, we knew about its Tree Care Academy Program. Lo and behold, TCIA was just coming out with its Year One Apprentice Training manual, and we got it straight off the press. They rushed those manuals right off to us. To get the quality we received was outstanding. That’s our main study guide.”

Because of high demand for utility-line-clearance work due to California’s wildfires, union pressure and California Governor Gavin Newsome’s legislation aimed at wildfire mitigation, funds are earmarked for the acceleration of line clearance throughout California. The pay scale is good. Students can expect a starting wage of $21.63.

“That’s way better than when I started in 1969 for $2.50 an hour,” says Abernathy.

Curriculum

Another key player is Brian Burgess, Butte College trainer who serves the UpSkill California workforce-training program as logistics and safety coordinator. Burgess provides UpSkill California Community College workforce-training centers support to achieve consistent delivery and trainee-proficiency outcomes across California.

“Some (students) had never even touched a chain saw, and by the end of the five weeks we had very competent people,” Burgess says. “The best thing is, they are teaching each other, such as how to make cuts more accurately. In climbing, they can talk each other through the difficult areas, like doing a limb walk. I think it’s a very successful program,” says Burgess.

The class was unusual in that it had four women sign up; to make it fair, the signup was first-come, first-served. Only one other woman previously had gone through the program.

“We celebrate the women coming into the industry and link them up to successful women and mentors,” Burgess says. “We try to make sure to welcome them into the family so they have someone to reach out to.”

Trainers

Experienced trainers also are key to the program’s success, since the program content in these early stages is still being tweaked to meet employers’ needs and trainees’ experience. Barnhart-Usedom is a good example.

“I rearranged the schedule a bit just to get them started earlier for each section. Each week was a new topic,” he says of the five modules. “I didn’t want them all to feel rushed.”

That was especially true with the climbing segment. “I told them no one was climbing unless they knew their knots. They were nervous, but they took it very seriously,” he says.

“At entry level, climbing isn’t relevant,” Barnhart-Usedom says. “If they are going into the industry as a groundworker, chain-saw use, job setup and chipper use are the things they need to learn. They all loved the climbing, so that is the hook. It takes years of experience in climbing. But I totally understand, people will lose interest if all they are doing is dragging brush. They need the fun part.” He adds, “It’s a good starting point, and it gives them a taste of what they are getting into.

“I like the program,” says Barnhart-Usedom. “It gives people who have little to no experience a hands-on experience.”

That was key for certain equipment. “One of the scariest things in my line of work is putting a chain saw in the hands of someone who has never used one before.”

His preference is for a longer class, mostly because “I love training people who want to learn, and all these people wanted to learn. I don’t like training people who are forced to be there. They made it easy for me because they wanted to learn.”

Barnhart-Usedom had valuable help from other contracted trainers. Week three, Jose “Pepe” Ramirez, a fellow Mowbray’s arborist, helped as an assistant. Tyler Zuniga from North American Training Solutions and Mike Noyes from ArborWorks, Inc., a 15-year TCIA member company from Oakhurst, Calif., also facilitated training to meet the 1:6
trainer-to-trainee ratio in the program.

“When it came down to the final assessments, we would not have gotten through that in a timely fashion without all of them present,” he says, “especially with their knowledge. All of us together, we’re pushing close to 100 years of experience in the industry. We have different outlooks to add, and we all know each other and work together really well.”

Barnhard-Usedom’s efforts paid off. Not only did a total of 11 people graduate, but they also received the highest EHAP score of any cohort thus far.

“Instilling this idea of safety from the very beginning is incredibly important, getting that safety culture from day one,” he says.

Next chapter

What’s next for the trainees? Going to work for employers and starting their 18-month Cal/OSHA Qualified Line Clearance Tree Trimmer Trainee certification program, according to Rafferty.

And finally they had the opportunity to get into the trees.

“There’s excitement on the part of both the industry and trainees,” Rafferty says. “One of the female trainees expressed her gratitude for being able to learn a skill safely and being able to go home to her kids each day. It’s a diverse workforce we are attracting into the field, and there’s excitement to be working outdoors and be part of a solution. It is pretty exciting for us in California.”

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