Contract Climbers: An Untapped Training Resource

The author on a job. The combined skillset of a professional contract climber – both trainer and skilled arborist – creates powerful learning opportunities. All photos courtesy of Craig Bachmann.

Developing skilled and productive employees can be difficult, particularly for the owners of small businesses. It requires a consistent investment of time and money, in one form or another. If you’re the owner of a tree care company – or considering starting your own – this article is for you.

Most of us did not start our businesses because we love training and people management. Rather, we were skilled arborists looking for new challenges and opportunities. So we obtained a business license, bought a little equipment and gradually hired people to work with us. One day, the business grew to the point that we needed to begin stepping away from the field to focus on the bigger picture. Maybe one day each week, or perhaps completely. And we thought, “If I’m not with the crew, who will make sure they are safe? Who will do the difficult climbing? How will my team keep learning?”

What most successful business owners know, and have learned through hard experience, is that they must continually invest in training. Growing the knowledge, skills and experience of employees is essential to growing the business. Effective training increases productivity and reduces costs through more work completed with less property damage and fewer injuries.

There are a million reasons why providing effective training is difficult, particularly for small business owners. The schedule is too busy. We can’t stop production. Training courses are expensive and take time away from production. Employees should be able to figure it out themselves – they said they have experience. Does this sound familiar?

Growing the knowledge, skills and experience of employees is essential to growing the business. Pictured is the author, left, with a climber partner.

The fact is, arboriculture requires a certain amount of knowledge and skill that takes years to master. Learning needs to be happening every workday. It ranges from tree identification and pruning methods to ropes and carabiners, friction devices and rope inspection, harnesses and climbing systems, driving equipment and operating chain saws. The list of topics seems endless, and there is no practical way to learn it all without working in the field.

Tree companies traditionally utilize on-the-job training (OJT) to teach knowledge and skills in the field. And it’s true, OJT is essential to employee development. A 30-year study of employee development identified that 70% of learning is achieved through on-the-job experiences and challenges, often called experiential learning, with 20% from other people (off the job) and the remaining 10% from formal courses.1 But delivering successful training – including OJT – requires more than showing up to work.

The Association for Talent Development found, “… the single greatest way for people to learn how to perform a specific task or job is during an opportunity to actually do it. Yet, experiential learning is often where companies provide the least support.”2

The author, yellow shirt, poses with a group of tree workers during a training session in Columbia. A contract climber can be a mentor for your team, leading by example, teaching new skills, correcting unsafe work practices and inspiring employees to pursue additional learning on their own.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad training. How often have you heard a crew leader say, “Watch me do this,” and then, when you attempt the skill, you’ve been shouted at, “No, not like that!” Or been told, “Don’t cut yourself.” Maybe you were sent to “work with Bob (or whomever),” as if Bob was actually intending to train you. Somewhere along the way, our profession decided these behaviors constituted training for new employees.

If on-the-job training is essential to building competence in arboriculture, we must do better. And there are so many ways we can improve – through better planning, more structure, assessment of employee skills, reinforcement of new learning and more. These are all important, but something is missing.

Leadership

The effectiveness of any training is dependent on the leader and their ability to influence the behavior of others. Strong leadership creates impactful learning experiences that elevate participants’ knowledge and skills. Weak leadership results in declining safety culture and antiquated work practices.

In the book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (HarperCollins, 2007), John C. Maxwell writes, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s effectiveness.” In a training situation, this means the impact of training is limited by the ability of the trainer to influence the behavior of others. While the trainer’s individual knowledge and skills are important, their influence and communication skills are the real determining factor. Therefore, we can dramatically improve the effectiveness of training by enhancing leadership.

Who leads OJT at your company? Is it the owner, the crew leader or simply the most “experienced” person? Most small companies are not in the position to employ a dedicated trainer, and the business owner is already juggling multiple roles, so the training responsibility generally lands on the crew leader, who may be a good climber or aerial-lift operator but does not necessarily have strong leadership skills.

Maxwell illustrates “The Law of the Lid” with the analogy of a football team. When a team is struggling to improve, despite its best efforts, the most effective way to raise performance is by changing the coach. Bringing in a new leader can quickly achieve results. Great coaches are highly skilled at inspiring others to improve, raising the performance of everyone around them.

Now let’s be clear, this does not mean replacing your crew leader. They are likely a proven employee and important to your business. Instead, consider another solution to elevate leadership and “lift the lid” on training at your company.

Contract climbers

A growing number of highly skilled arborists are now working independently. Rather than starting traditional tree businesses, they have elected to become professional contract climbers, working with many different companies. These professionals have proven leadership abilities developed at well-respected companies. They are trained in modern, safe work practices. Many have worked on large projects with stringent safety protocols. Some even have qualifications as trainers and safety specialists.

While each professional contract climber is unique, a common characteristic is their strong desire to contribute, to elevate the skills and knowledge of those around them. They have reached the point in their careers where arboriculture is no longer just about trees, but rather about tree people.

By using the term “professional,” we move beyond the stereotype of a mercenary climber, the sketchy removal guy who works for cash and won’t drag brush. A professional contract climber is a highly skilled arborist who works with your crew and elevates performance for the whole team. They may work with your company on an occasional or a regular basis, not every day, and may be hired as a part-time employee or subcontractor, depending on the laws in your state. However, we must acknowledge that some contract climbers do not meet the criteria of a professional, as we’ve defined it. As with all personnel decisions, it is essential to interview carefully, check references, verify credentials and confirm that your priorities are well aligned.

The combined skillset of a professional contract climber – both trainer and skilled arborist – creates powerful learning opportunities. They can be a mentor for your team, leading by example, teaching new skills, correcting unsafe work practices and inspiring employees to pursue additional learning on their own.

It’s easy for a small tree company to be focused on producing work and have limited connection to the broader professional community. We simply get busy working and don’t realize our skills and safety culture have stopped evolving. In those environments, it’s easy for employees to become big fish in a small pond. A professional contract climber can help overcome this through crosspollination, sharing skills, tools and techniques that may be new to your company.3 This injection of new ideas can rejuvenate a stagnant safety culture.

When utilizing a contract climber, some companies begin the day with a brief, structured training around a topic pertinent to that day’s tree challenges, such as canopy anchors, chain-saw safety or hazard-tree management. Then, working with your employees on the job, the contract climber can observe their work practices and provide immediate feedback and hands-on training. There are countless opportunities for learning, including:

  • Thorough safety briefing
  • Better job-site setup
  • Planning for aerial rescue
  • Throw-line technique
  • Tips on chain-saw sharpening
  • Safer rigging plan
  • Improved pruning skills
  • Better work positioning

Chipper safety

Another hallmark of a professional contract climber is the ability to perform their own work while simultaneously observing and coaching other employees. Helmet-mounted Bluetooth systems provide big advantages for this type of training, as they enable ongoing communication among the whole team. Everyone is learning together.

The combined benefits delivered by a professional contract climber – training and production – create a compelling opportunity. However, some business owners worry about the costs. By hiring a professional contract climber, you make an intentional investment in the development of your employees and the future of your company. You “lift the lid” on training with greater leadership and actively crosspollinate the work environment with new skills techniques and safe work practices.

Many tree-company owners are capitalizing on the opportunity to improve on-the-job training with professional contract climbers. Here’s how one business owner describes the value he receives.

What most successful business owners know, and have learned through hard experience, is that they must continually invest in training. Pictured is the author, left, with a fellow climber.

“Hiring a professional contract climber … helps us tackle complex projects with great emphasis on quality, safety and efficiency,” says Allen Taylor, Conservation Tree Care, Seattle, Washington. “He (the contract climber) models safe behavior and best practices, and is very open with us about his thought process and approach to the work. This results in a great deal of training for us while still performing a profitable job.”

Conclusion

Developing skilled and productive employees is a challenge, particularly for small tree care companies. There are many obstacles to providing effective training. Professional contract climbers can provide strong leadership to help “lift the lid” on training and improve the skills and safety of your team. Hiring a contract climber can be a smart investment to deliver compelling training while executing a profitable job. That investment can provide big returns by increasing the performance of your team and the entire business.

References

1. Center for Creative Leadership, ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/
70-20-10-rule/

2. Association for Talent Development, td.org/insights/why-do-we-leave-ojt-to-chance

3. “What Bees Can Teach Us About the Pollination of Ideas,” kathleenallen.net

Craig Bachmann is a Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP), Certified Arborist, Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) credentialed and an experienced safety/skills trainer. He is the lead arborist and manager of Tree133, a tree-preservation company and a three-year TCIA member company based in Seattle, Wash. Bachmann previously worked as a contract climber and also has hired contractors to support his own company.

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