In what appears to be a perfect merger of needs, a program in Boston is training people in search of a vocation to work in an industry historically in need of people. PowerCorpsBOS (Power Corps Boston) is currently in its second session of giving job seekers training in arboriculture and urban forestry.
“At our core, we’re a workforce development program,” says program director Joey Pellegrino, a Certified Arborist who works for the City of Boston. He says the goal is to get participants into the arboriculture community, but also into other “green” jobs, such as the horticulture team at Zoo New England (at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston) or elsewhere.
“We are focused on arboriculture, but we’re also focused on horticulture, property maintenance, park maintenance and park operations, and even have a budding partnership with the Boston Park Rangers here,” Pellegrino says. “There is a serious need for park rangers. I’m an arborist, but my goal is to get them into this career, because there are not a lot of students coming out of the tech programs or Stockbridge (School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst) any more. We’re trying to fill that gap.”
PowerCorpsBOS is a six-month “earn-and-learn,” green-jobs training program that pays members to participate in hands-on training to prepare them for living-wage careers. It provides adults with training, career-readiness support and connections to employers in the green industry, while also teaching a variety of soft skills that translate to any career.
The program stems from a pilot program originally developed as an AmeriCorps program in Philadelphia in 2013 (PowerCorpsPHL). The Boston version is a franchise, and a representative from the Philadelphia program serves as a consultant.
Participants need to meet certain criteria. They must:
- Be 18 to 30 years old.
- Be a resident of Boston.
- Have a high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED.
- Be unemployed or underemployed, and not in college or on a career track.
- Have an interest in outdoor, hands-on training.
In addition, priority populations include returning citizens, court-involved residents, youth who have experienced homelessness or housing instability, young people who have been in foster care and other marginalized communities.
“It’s focused on the green industries, and with that we have different tracks we build out,” Pellegrino says. “Right now, our main track we have is an urban-forestry track, and that is a lot of natural-resource-management work combined with urban-forestry work. What we’re trying to develop is giving them the skills to get into a tree-climber-trainee position at a private company or municipality.”
Bringing arboriculture to the city
The first arboriculture and urban forestry cohort was taught last fall at the UMass, Mount Ida campus by Kristina Bezanson. Bezanson is a wearer of many hats, including program coordinator for the two-year associate-degree program at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass, Amherst. In that role, she coordinates the Stockbridge online certificate program in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry. She also lectures in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry in the Department of Environmental Conservation at UMass.
“That’s how Power Corps Boston contacted me, because they knew about our certificate program,” says Bezanson, who taught her class face to face. “The certificate program is fully online, and it’s designed for career switchers, such as tree wardens who are trying to get CEUs or enhance their training. We designed the certificate to be a mini-version of the associate’s degree, and had a whole bunch of stakeholders – arborists, government agencies – people who hire Stockbridge graduates and sit on the committee to design the certificate.”
Pre-pandemic, there was a big demand from career switchers and other older students in Boston for education in arboriculture and urban forestry, Bezanson says. When UMass Amherst bought the Mount Ida College campus, the hope was to bring on-campus courses to that Boston-based location. That was when Power Corps Boston contracted them to teach the 14-week Principles of Arboriculture course as part of the program, every Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
There were no similar classes in the region.
In addition to the classroom work, there was other training related to job and career success (resume writing, public speaking, etc.) and in-the-field, hands-on service projects.
“They worked at Franklin Park a lot, they worked for the Audubon Society, they did a lot of invasive-species removal, they did a lot of tree-planting projects, pruning,” Bezanson says. “They did a lot of hands-on work.”
Success is in numbers
The program started with 30 participants and finished with 21, which, Pellegrino says, is a good percentage for workforce-development programs. Some dropped out before Bezanson began teaching, so she began with 23 and finished with 21. She says the results were impressive based on academic class-retention data.
“Compared to my university classes and my online classes, the retention was no different,” Bezanson says.
As part of the grant-funding process, a survey was made of area community colleges and colleges in the UMass system. There were no existing classes similar to those of PowerCorpsBOS in the region.
“Most of them (participants) are not necessarily going to go off to college,” Bezanson says. “We were trying to get them good-paying jobs in urban forestry and arboriculture. However, I do have a handful who are going to continue on. A handful of the students had college degrees, but they were underemployed or not satisfied with what they were doing. So there were some who were going to be applying to come to UMass or to other schools. A couple of students wanted to go on for environmental conservation, a few wanted to apply to the arbor program and some were going into other industries, but still related to the environment and climate change.”
Finding a fit
As part of the program, the participants attended an ISA event in Framingham, and Bezanson fielded some calls as a professional reference from some tree care companies. Representatives from some TCIA-accredited companies came to class to give lectures and demonstrations in pruning, chain-saw use, climbing and other skills.
“Everyone was kind of softly recruiting the students as they were demonstrating or giving a lecture,” she says.
Not every participant is suited for every role, which is something they discovered during the training.
“Not every student is going to want to climb a tree, and that’s why we put them through a tree-climbing workshop with Bear (LeVangie) and Melissa LeVangie (Ingersoll), to see what it’s going to be like on that job,” says Pellegrino, knowing that after getting a taste of the experience, some will prefer to keep their feet on the ground. “Overall, our mission is to get underemployed folks from Boston into career positions they otherwise may not be able to access.”
According to Daniel Lawson, director of technical assistance for PowerCorps-PHL, three cities have adopted similar programs. The others are Buffalo, New York, and Reading, Pennsylvania. All have a focus on green jobs, but at this point only Boston has a tree care and urban-forestry component.
Of the 21 who completed the session held last fall, five participants landed jobs in the tree care industry. In the most recent cohort, PowerCorpsBOS had 30 participants in the Urban-Forestry track and 10 in the Building-Operations track.