Competency in Arboriculture

Competency consists of a skill set that must be managed in order to assure quality and efficiency in a service industry. Photo courtesy of the author.

Competence is defined as the set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable and improve the efficiency of performance within a job. The word “competence” as it is used today first appeared in 1959 in an article authored by R.W. White, who employed the word as a concept for performance motivation. For our purposes, the question is, how do we know our crews are competent? How do we know our team members know what to do? The answer to that question might just lie in the last word of the explanation above of White’s usage: motivation. How are we motivating our team members to perform in the highly skilled trade of arboriculture?

Competence consists of a skill set that must be managed in order to assure quality and efficiency in a service industry. For us, competence is broken down into three main categories: education/ training, oversight and reward. Each of these sections will be discussed in the paragraphs to follow. We are not saying this is the be-all and end-all to ensure quality and competence among our staff. This is merely a platform from which to share ideas and examples about how it has worked for us.

Studies have shown there are three main learning styles or modalities: visual, auditory and kinesthetic.Visual refers to learning by seeing and watching; auditory refers to learning by hearing; kinesthetic refers to learning by doing and interacting. Our apprenticeship program focuses on these learning modalities in order to assure competence among our workforce.

The visual aspect of learning is covered within the TCIA Tree Care Academy manuals. The auditory facet is covered with our tailgate safety meetings. These weekly discussions are an opportunity for all staff to share the past week’s experiences, good or bad, without fear of any repercussions. It is a chance for us all to be students, but more important, speakers or teachers. The final learning modality is kinesthetic, learning by doing. Most skilled tradespersons, in our experience, learn best by doing. We learn by putting something into our hands or producing something. While this might be the best for some, it is important not to let it be your only modality.

Our company has set up an apprenticeship program for all incoming production-team members, regardless of previous experience. Some of the training modules we have made in-house, to cater specifically to our own equipment and SOPs (standard operating procedures). Some of the training comes from TCIA.

One way Joseph Tree has found to have congruence among its field staff is to have each member complete a series of the Tree Care Academy manuals. Photo courtesy of the author.

One way we have found to have congruence among our field staff is to have each member complete a series of the Tree Care Academy manuals. This is one way to ensure all team members, regardless of previous work history or experience, understand the basic principles of arboriculture and communicate using the same terminology. We’ve had instances in the past when new crew members with previous experience in tree work have had the skill sets, but used different terminology. These manuals help streamline this process. The manuals greatly help our new team members understand relevant topics for tree work such as chipper safety, felling techniques, work-positioning principles and efficient crane operations, to name a few.

Consistent training helps make sure all crew members are on the same page, improving communication in the field. Photo courtesy of the author.

Some of our folks are more cerebral than others, therefore, they might learn best by seeing it or reading about it. We have found the best success by incorporating all three learning styles.

Our apprenticeship program is structured in such a way as to expose our team members to new concepts through the TCIA Tree Care Academy manuals. For example, during the first three weeks of employment, our staff are given and expected to complete Ground Operations Specialist, Chipper Operator Specialist and Chain Saw Specialist. We give these manuals to our staff prior to them being exposed to these concepts in the field. That way, once they see them and do them, their retention rates are higher. When our crew leaders and training staff discuss these topics, they are not foreign concepts.

Too often in our industry, the only education and training that is given is on the job. How can we be assured our crew members are providing the best service when the only way they learn is through time and experience on the job? There is a great need for a formalized process of education and training within our industry.

Having an established training program is a great step, but there needs to be a way to monitor progress and, more important, deliver it. Our training specialists at Joseph Tree hold an important role in incorporating the aforementioned learning modalities so that each member of our staff is the safest and most professional arborist possible. This is not a one-man show but a team concept. We do have one person responsible for setting goals and deadlines for each crew member; however, each person who has made it through our apprenticeship program is encouraged to then teach the newest recruit.

Joseph Tree’s apprenticeship program is structured in such a way as to expose team members to new concepts through training manuals prior to them being exposed to these concepts in the field. Photo courtesy of the author

The program is laid out from the very first day in a detailed map to guide each recruit through the entirety of their first year. It spells out which Tree Care Academy manual they will be given and when it needs to be turned in. There are also check-off sheets to go with the major aspects of production tree work: ground operations, equipment operations, ropes and knots, rigging, A300 pruning standards, tree planting, climbing and work positioning at height and crane best practices.

Having scheduled benchmarks not only helps keep our team members motivated, but also gives our leadership team the opportunity to part ways with those who may not be the best fit for tree work or our company. Tree work certainly isn’t for everyone, and there needs to be a system in place that takes the subjectivity out of terminations.

The final piece to assuring competence with our team is reward. There needs to be a reason for someone to come into your company and work hard. They need to know their efforts are not only acknowledged but rewarded. Our ownership strives to let everyone know their work is appreciated. Above that, we have an incentive program that rewards each person for each step they accomplish within the apprenticeship program. For most of the steps within what is affectionately known as the “Jedi Program,” our crew members receive an increase in pay.

We also have a bonus program, whereas, if all of our crews meet a production goal at the end of the month, each member who is at a certain level in the Jedi Program is rewarded. We have found greater success by rewarding team members as a team rather than as individuals.

Education, training, mentorship and reward are the ways in which we have found the most success with ensuring competence among our crews.

Evan Beck, CTSP, is a Certified Arborist and training/production supervisor with Joseph Tree, an accredited, 8-year TCIA member company based in Dublin, Ohio.

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