Is apprenticeship the key to solving our workforce shortage? Is apprenticeship the answer to the training and retention of employees? Will apprenticeship elevate our industry into a recognized skilled trade? It would be amazing if the answer were yes, but the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program is not a silver bullet. However, it is an important and fantastic tool to help us recruit, train and retain our employees and build an increased level of professionalism along the way.
Apprenticeship is not a new concept. It has been used successfully to train workforces since the Middle Ages. Modern apprenticeship in the United States dates back to 1911, when Wisconsin started the first state-sponsored apprenticeship program. The major concept of apprenticeship is to earn as you learn while on the job. It creates a formal training program that provides the employee with a path to grow into a role as a skilled worker while getting paid along the way.
Workforce trends shift over time. With the increasing cost of college tuition and the need for skilled-trade workers that colleges are not producing to grow our economy, the workforce-development pendulum has started to swing toward apprenticeship. State and federal dollars continue to be allotted to strengthen workforce-development programs. Many states offer incentives and grants for employers participating in Registered Apprenticeship Programs, such as tax credits.
Apprenticeship vs. a company training program
Registered Arborist Apprenticeship is a formal training program registered with a state labor department or the federal Department of Labor. Apprentices sign a contract with the employer. The employer agrees to provide training and wage increases over time, based on a set pay scale. The employee agrees to learn, grow and stick around.
Many companies have training programs to teach and build the skills that it takes to become a successful arborist. Employers can buy the TCIA Tree Care Academy programs and have their employees go through these, and the training is almost identical.
So why would a company want to invest so heavily on the front end and go through all the red tape and bureaucracy of creating a formal apprenticeship program? Apprenticeship helps elevate our recruitment, training and retention of employees. My goal in this article is to show you how the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship does that.
For years, arborists have lagged behind other skilled professionals such as electricians, carpenters and plumbers in both wages and public perception. A skilled trade is any job that requires a specialized skill, usually obtained through vocational school, community college programs and/or on-the-job training through an apprenticeship.
With the advent of the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship, our industry is now recognized as a skilled trade by the U.S. Department of Labor. This helps put our industry on the map with high school guidance counselors and, more important, our prospective candidates’ parents!
Our company has successfully used Registered Arborist Apprenticeship since 2018. I’ve noticed that, as our company posted jobs offering Arborist Apprenticeship, the quality and number of candidates started to increase. We started attracting people looking for careers, not just jobs. They searched us out because they were excited about our industry. A formal program that showed them a pathway to becoming a skilled, well-paid arborist was quite attractive.
Employers offering Arborist Apprenticeship become attractive partners for nonprofit organizations also focused on workforce development. Workforce training programs are on the rise, and youth apprenticeship programs are starting to gain traction. These types of sector partnerships become perfect feeders into your Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program. If you offer a Registered Arborist Apprenticeship, you may be surprised by what type of partners you are able to get involved with to help bring candidates into your program.
Arborist Apprenticeship training has three parts:
- On-the-job training.
- Proving the ability to competently perform tasks in the job book.
- Paid related instruction time.
Each part is important in its own way.
Apprentices track how many hours they performed certain processes, such as pruning trees and shrubs or operating a chain saw. Various programs are flexible in the number of hours of on-the-job experience required, with most ranging from 5,000 to 6,000 hours for the program. The program is designed to take three to four years to complete. Apprentices who successfully finish become journeyworkers, ready to train the next set of apprentices.
The job book is another important aspect of the program. One or more skilled workers are assigned to work with the apprentice. Once the apprentice demonstrates that they can perform a task productively, safely and unsupervised, the journeyworker confirms successful completion in the job book.
Paid related instruction is the third aspect of the training. This makes up 440 hours of our Wisconsin program (other states will be similar). This is classroom time when the apprentice studies subjects such as tree identification and biology. The apprentices try out different arborist skills and techniques at a slower pace than one might find on a job site. This classroom time is extremely valuable in creating a well-rounded, skilled arborist. Classroom time is paid for by the employer. Tree care companies that use TCIA’s Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program as their related instruction can administer the related instruction component on site instead of at a community college.
Challenge of paid instruction
This paid related instruction can be performed in a variety of ways and is arguably the most challenging part of Arborist Apprenticeship to get rolling successfully. In Wisconsin, employers send their apprentices to one of two technical colleges for class. The instructors work with the employers to schedule classroom time so it will be least disruptive to company production time. Classes are often in the off-season, after normal work hours or one day a week. Some classes are offered online for the convenience of the apprentices and employers alike. However, if there is not a technical college available nearby, there are several other ways an employer may offer the paid classroom instruction.
TCIA offers an Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program that individual companies can use to perform paid related instruction in-house. It contains Arborist Apprenticeship manuals and instructor guides to help trainers implement the instruction. In some regions of the country, clusters of employers are working together to teach the classroom portion of Arborist Apprenticeship with cohorts of apprentices from multiple companies. They have found a successful combination of utilizing technical college courses along with employer instructors teaching with the TCIA curriculum.
As Registered Arborist Apprenticeship grows around the country, there will be more potential opportunities and innovative ways for delivery of the paid related classroom instruction. Many technical colleges are hungry for students, and teaching apprenticeship is a way for them to boost enrollment. ISA chapters are uniquely positioned to rally employers into apprenticeship clusters. The key to this is getting organized in your area with an Arborist Apprenticeship “champion,” someone who adopts or helps promote and organize the program. TCIA will continue to provide support and curriculum for employers working alone or in groups with one another.
Apprenticeship contributes to retention
One of the big questions people inevitably ask is, “This is a big investment, what if the employee quits?” Of our 17 apprentices and journeyworkers who have gone through our program, only one left to start their own business. A 94% retention rate is not too bad and is higher than most other companies with non-apprentice employees.
The up-front cost of the program is negligible, and the apprentice is providing an increasing amount of return on your investment starting from day one. The fact is, retention is higher with a successful Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program. The apprentice sees the employer’s commitment to them, along with the clear pathway to a successful career.
Building the skills of your workforce is tremendously important, but what apprenticeship can do for your company culture can be immeasurable. Apprentices quickly realize they are in a skilled profession and take pride in what they do. It can even rub off on older employees who aren’t in the program. They see the enthusiasm for the industry that apprentices bring back to the work crew, and often they start stepping up their game as well. This starts to create an environment of learning and support that can ripple throughout your organization.
The ISA Certified Arborist is an important and well-established credential in our industry. The Arborist journeyworker credential is designed to take about three years and aligns very well with preparing someone for the ISA Certified Arborist exam. Imagine a world where now we have a program where someone can prove their competency in the profession, along with passing a rigorous exam to show their knowledge.
Once an apprentice becomes a journeyworker, they are now ready to train new apprentices to your organization. This creates a sustainable, perpetual cycle of higher skills. We all know how hard it is to find experienced help. If you are lucky to do so, there are often complications with integrating them into your culture and untraining them from their past industry experience.
Over time, utilizing the apprenticeship model creates a pipeline of new, entry-level employees growing and developing into your skilled people. This enables you to continue to hire entry-level employees and build them up with the skills and values your company needs.
The journeyworker credential is recognized by the Department of Labor and all state-sponsored apprenticeship programs. The journeyworker credential also can create credit for prior learning if a journeyworker wishes to continue their education with a technical college or perhaps even a four-year-degree school.
Apprenticeship sounds formal and regimented. The reality is that it’s designed to be very flexible to meet the needs of the employer. One-thousand hours of on-the-job training are designated for optional employer work processes. You can add Job book competencies specific to your company to the program. Paid related instruction can be delivered in many different ways. Each company can make Arborist Apprenticeship its own.
I’m excited to see how Registered Arborist Apprenticeship can grow. In Wisconsin, we started off slowly at first, with only a couple of employers on board. Our Apprenticeship Advisory Committee made some changes to our program, and then other local companies began to join. Now, in 2023, we have 17 employers involved across the state, with more than 100 apprentices working toward journeyworker status.
We know the program is working because the employer count keeps growing and existing employers keep sending new apprentices. The Wisconsin Arborist Apprenticeship is recognized as the fastest-growing apprenticeship program of any industry within the state of Wisconsin. Their success is driven by committed employers, driven employees, fantastic classroom instructors and a supportive State Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.
Arborist Apprenticeship is a proven, consistent method of training our workforce. It raises our professionalism and our image with the public. A higher level of professionalism means higher prices for our work and higher wages for our skilled employees, who deserve it. It creates a promise between the employer and the employee that pays dividends to both sides.
August Hoppe is owner and president of Hoppe Tree Service LLC, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors.
This article was based on his presentation, made with Josh Morin, on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.