An observational treatise regarding distinctions between “professional” and “unprofessional” tree services.
Schisms. In the act of differentiating, humans create schisms between two or more competing alternatives in order to highlight the more favorable outcome. Each of these differentiated outcomes, if acted upon, holds its own consequences. As professional arborists, we are surrounded by differentiation every day in the workplace. Indeed, profits, reputations of businesses and the lives of our crews depend upon the quality of the consequences, or results, we achieve.
Recently, I was accused of working for one of those “prim-and-proper” tree services. While prim and proper have not always been the foremost adjectives used to describe the efforts of my co-workers and myself, I took the man’s meaning. The man, 20 years older than me and owning a self-proclaimed “unprofessional” tree service, issued his accusation as a respectful concession. Interpreting his remark with all goodwill, it spurred me to thinking, “How great is the disparity between professional and unprofessional tree services? Is the gulf between our two companies really that wide?”
I reflected on personal experience to reach a conclusion. Remarks from the old-timer rang in unison with my own convictions. Taken together, I now had evidence from the other side of the schism acknowledging a disparity between our two camps. This was a revelation to me. Previously, I hadn’t the slightest notion that our unindoctrinated counterparts ever considered the professional side, and if they did, in what way? Despite my own prejudices toward the “unprofessional” tree services, I became softened by a newfound collegiality, compelling me to consider the unprofessional side of the schism.
So, what of these questions and why do they matter? If you happen to be an arborist unburdened by the desire to be an ambassador for our profession, you should probably switch stations now. Differentiation between professional and unprofessional tree services is now more pertinent than ever, I get that. The ability to secure approval signatures, increase your company’s influence and become a better steward of the knowledge and methods we, as arborists, promote hinges on our convincing tact in distinguishing “us” from “them.” This subject is probably where most of you would like the conversation to dwell – “How to best serve the interests of my business and myself” – right? However, this is where I pivot. I propose a nuanced idea by discovering parity with our unprofessional counterparts as a means to progress the industry.
The unprofessional I spoke with was a farm boy. The business started when someone asked him to clean up a storm-damaged limb from their house. “After that, the business boomed,” he explained. There I was, professional with unprofessional, swapping stories. I discovered an increasing parity with the other side. I recognized in him a grit and resourcefulness that serves my co-workers and me daily. Out of this interaction, stereotypes drawn from and enforced by conversations with professional arborists began to diminish as I found a way to connect with the gritty farm boy. I found the unerring communion of parity.
What cemented this parity?
He wanted to be like me, like us – professional. After decades of doing business the unprofessional way, profitable and content as he was, he yearned to change the image and practice of his business. Many unprofessional tree services do not behave in this way. Honestly, the notion that an unprofessional tree service was willing to forego its own ways of doing business in order to learn the professional way of arboriculture shocked me.
Submitting to the process of learning requires an unnatural humility. Isn’t learning one of the foremost disparities between the unprofessional and professional? Here he was, eager to learn, diminishing the schism. In this exchange, where he treated me as a professional, I wanted to share with him some irrefutable hallmarks of our profession. (Was I ready for this? Are you ready for a conversation such as this?)
At this juncture, I would like to report on the ease of indoctrination when teaching an unprofessional. Alas, I cannot. This intersection is fraught with important differences. Differences that, if traversed without respect and grace, may cripple the whole interaction. Tensions can be rife. How could they not be? Safe practices that you and your crews have taken for granted will be called into question. If you agree to undertake this discourse with an unprofessional, permit plenty of time for the “justification conversation.” Nonprofessionals will demand justification on practices or methods that seem to be self-evidently irreproachable. Resist feeling discouraged. Keep the larger objective in mind: More tree workers need the proficiency of the professional.
A glimpse of the disparity
One day while driving through an upper-middle-class neighborhood, my co-worker and I observed a lack of professional proficiency. The tree crew – three men with some poor-looking equipment – appeared to be topping or removing three Bradford pears in an overly complicated manner. After completing a service call, we were making our exit from the neighborhood when the rough-looking chaps called out to us, “Help!” It seemed there was a rather tense conversation taking place between the client and the climber. Despite the nagging considerations of liability, my employer’s reputation and the potential inquisition from ownership, I was half-inclined to stop and help. But I didn’t. This interaction convinced me of the widespread lack of the professional’s proficiency and the necessity for more of it in the markets we serve.
Back to the story …
Eventually, my conversation with the inquiring, unprofessional elder swung around to the story of how I began in the industry. I shared with him how, at the beginning, I was confounded by the lack of access to tree-climbing instruction. So, being a Christian, I prayed. Somehow that prayer was answered, and I discovered Jeff Jepson’s three books: The Tree Climber’s Companion, To Fell A Tree and Knots at Work. I told him the whole story, including how I began studying tree work (theory) on my own. At this point he interjected, “See, that’s where we’re different. We don’t study tree work like you do.” Again, he stated this not as a disparagement, rather as a respectful concession highlighting a schism.
Earlier I confessed that certain adjectives have fallen short in their capacity to accurately describe the actions of my co-workers and me. Indeed, this is true. Hours before ink had been laid to this very draft, my co-worker was responsible for a driving accident involving one of our bucket trucks. As I further investigated the schism between unprofessional and professional tree services, I found more and more parity. When I started this thought experiment, I expected to enumerate more and detailed differences between the two camps. I fought to stay atop the ivory tower of inscrutability and drive the schism deeper and deeper. While I was doing this, all of my missteps, mistakes and consequences from unwise differentiation were calling out to me – professionalism is not perfection.
I learned more about myself as a professional from an unprofessional than I knew was possible. The most sensational fact about this event wasn’t the inability to submit this conversation for ISA CEUs, but the manner and source from which this learning occurred. As evinced by my conversation with an unprofessional, professional arborists are more learned and maybe we can even say more technically proficient. However, there are opposing statements to be made to the aforesaid.
Namely, as professional arborists, we are not all possessed with a spirit of collegiality or ambassadorial inclination toward our unprofessional counterparts. I certainly never expected to be consulted by an unprofessional tree service. How do we act when we are? Are we to submit to the market-induced temptations of fighting for the interests of our own enterprises? What if we found a way to increase the spread and implementation of what is deemed “best-practice” by being open to sharing our knowledge, if such there be? Does this thought seem absurd? My position not only predicates itself on personal persuasion, but on the truth of the verse, “For to everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
In my case, they were asking how to be professional. I assert, for those of us inclined to be ambassadors of arboriculture, find the parity between yourself and your unprofessional counterpart. Be prepared for these interactions to challenge you and spur a new kind of growth in your professional mentality, as I experienced. For a counter-
cultural mode of thinking, stop looking at the unprofessional tree workers as adversaries, because maybe they aren’t. Perhaps they haven’t been afforded the exposure to learning we have, and, as a result, go to work every day with a greater liability exposure because of it. If we find the parity between us, maybe more trees are holistically cared for, maybe lives are saved and maybe we grow as professionals.
Zachary Oesterle is a climbing arborist with Timberline Professional Tree Care, a tree care company based in Pevely, Missouri.