Apprenticeship Program: Invest in Your Team and They Will Invest in You

Mike Earl, owner of Old Growth Tree Service LLC, an eight-year TCIA member company based in Eagle, Colorado, says he loves the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship Program. His first arborist apprentice, Ryan Mack, will soon complete his U. S. Department of Labor (USDOL) journeyworker certificate. Based on that success, Earl has another apprentice lined up and plans further expansion of the program.

“Knowledge is one of our core values, and Old Growth Tree Service has always had a big focus on education,” says Earl. “We have an incredible diversity of experience on our team, and we encourage our employees to share their knowledge with each other and our customers. The apprenticeship program has helped us make tremendous gains in creating a culture of partnership and learning by formalizing a process for sharing knowledge and creating alignment of practices.”

A major takeaway for Earl is that the program not only aids the apprentice but also the mentors in his company, helping to create a culture of learning and safety. Everyone gains.

“This helps our employees grow, which helps the business develop and provides the resources for further investment in training and education,” says Earl.

Apprentice Ryan Mack makes a pruning cut
Apprentice Ryan Mack makes a pruning cut during a client education day. All photos courtesy of Old Growth Tree Service.

What is arborist apprenticeship?

The Registered Arborist Apprentice Program is a formal training program registered with a state’s labor department or the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), much like those provided for the plumbing, carpentry and electrical trades. Arboriculture is now recognized as a skilled trade by the USDOL.

Those supporting or taking advantage of apprenticeship say it can help solve the workforce shortage the tree industry faces, helping tree care companies not only find but also retain loyal and well-trained employees.

“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 pendulum has started to swing toward apprenticeship,” states August Hoppe, owner and president of Hoppe Tree Service and a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors (See “Raising Professionalism with Arborist Apprenticeship,” TCI Magazine, May 2023). “State and federal dollars continue to be allotted to strengthen workforce-development programs. Many states offer incentives, such as tax credits and grants for employers participating in Registered Arborist Apprentice programs.”

How does it work?

The apprenticeship program
“The apprenticeship program has helped define a purpose and pathway for our people, and it has provided our company with a framework for good and sustainable workforce development,” says Mike Earl

Apprenticeship programs vary from employer to employer depending on the needs and culture of each company and the employment laws of the state in which they operate. Some may include a formal signed contract where the employer agrees to provide paid training for the apprentice, while the apprentice agrees to train and stay with the company following graduation from the program. Others, like the apprenticeship program set up at Old Growth Tree Service, do not have a binding contract. After completing the apprenticeship – most programs range from 5,000 to 6,000 hours of on-the-job experience or competency-based training – the employee becomes a journeyworker and is then able to train apprentices.

TCIA has been helping companies benefit from this program with its Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program, providing a curriculum through manuals and instruction guides. This program will be available in TCIA’s online learning center in 2024.

Mike Earl has taken advantage of TCIA’s Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program, and is very positive about all apprenticeship can do. We asked how he structured his apprenticeship program and what benefits his company has gained.

How did you come to start your apprenticeship program?

“A colleague, Josh Morin, invited me to join the board of the Colorado Tree Care Sector Partnership. Josh owns We Love Trees in Niwot, Colorado (a TCIA member company; Morin is also a TCIA Board member). The partnership brings together like-minded arboriculture businesses and seeks to foster alignment within the industry of economic development, workforce development and education, which is how I came to know about the apprenticeship program. This connection also led me to the Colorado Department of Labor and the Colorado Workforce Center, and both helped me sponsor the apprenticeship program at Old Growth Tree Service.”

Was it easy to create the apprenticeship program at Old Growth Tree?

“With the structure and resources for the apprenticeship program developed by TCIA, starting the program has been relatively easy. The program aligns with our culture and values, so our team members immediately recognized the value of investing their time and effort. With that said, it’s always a struggle to find time to meet, which I think is a universal challenge for all small businesses, and especially those with a short production season like ours. I’m extremely proud of the effort that our mentors and apprentices have put forth and the commitment they’ve shown to the program, getting together after long days in the field or even on ‘days off.’”

Tell us a little about your apprentice and what his interest was. Any more apprentices in the future? 
“When I hired Ryan, he told me he didn’t have a five-year plan – he had a 15-year plan and wanted to go all-in at Old Growth Tree Service. He’s always been interested in the science behind what we do, and he has sought out opportunities to cross-train and broaden his knowledge by working in our PHC (Plant Health Care) and Forestry departments. Because of our location in the Rocky Mountains, we have a few months of downtime each winter, and Ryan has taken advantage of these slower times to study hard and obtain the ISA Certified Arborist credential, which he completed last year.

“The apprenticeship program was a natural and logical next step, and he’s absolutely thrived in the structured environment it provides. Another employee, John Mitchell, is not far behind, and we anticipate that he will complete the program in May of 2024. We’re also working on getting additional members of our team signed off on being mentors, and we hope to have six mentors and six apprentices in place this coming spring and have them complete the program by the end of 2025.”

Mike Earl arborist apprenticeship
Mike Earl, with hard hat, talks with clients during a client education day at Old Growth Tree Service.

“Our apprenticeship program includes 15 modules ranging from tree biology to advanced rigging for removals and everything in between. In total, there are 49 competencies and 430 hours of related instruction that is one on one with the mentor and apprentice. The work is completed through a combination of training in the field, work in a classroom setting and independent study, most of which is paid time for the employee. Each of the 15 modules has a subset of competencies that are introduced and practiced until the apprentice demonstrates consistent proficiency.”

Besides following the USDOL guidelines of minimum requirements, what else have you included?
“In addition to our core curriculum, we also require that each apprentice completes first-aid, CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator) training annually, and each of our apprentices must obtain a Class-A commercial driver’s license (CDL) to graduate. We are also in the process of evaluating whether we will include ISA arborist certification in the process.”

What sources do you rely on for these requirements?

“We use resources from TCIA extensively in the core curriculum, which includes written material designed for the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship Program, as well as videos produced by TCIA. We’ve also benefited from work done in a similar program through Front Range Community College and Colorado Tree Care Sector Partnership, which also uses TCIA literature. The majority of instruction in our program is provided by in-house mentors who work one on one with their apprentice. We supplement with outside resources in areas like aerial rescue and first-aid training.”

Are you using Colorado’s competency-based program?

“Yes, we have chosen to use the competency-based program because it provides the most flexibility for our apprentices to learn how they learn best and to do so at their own pace. Instead of completing a prescribed number of hours of training, the apprentice must demonstrate competency in each of the 49 areas that are contained in the 15 primary modules. Each person brings a different knowledge base.

Where one may need to start from scratch, another may be able to demonstrate proficiency in a number of competencies right off the bat. Similarly, depending on the other demands of their time – family, recreational pursuits, etc. – one apprentice may need weeks to complete a module where another may only require a few days.”

Do you collaborate with other tree care companies in Colorado for the apprenticeship program, i.e., the Tree Care Sector Partnership?

“Our initial focus has been to develop a robust program within our own company. In the long-term, say five years, it’s my hope to leverage connections with other arboriculture businesses in the region to create a pool of resources and expand the culture of training and knowledge, sharing beyond the bounds of our own individual teams.”

The apprenticeship program
“The apprenticeship program has helped define a purpose and pathway for our people, and it has provided our company with a framework for good and sustainable workforce development,” says Mike Earl

How did you structure compensation with wage adjustments?

“We pay our employees for the majority of the time they spend training and learning. Further, we reward them for completing this program and other training milestones that are a part of it. If we don’t, we are creating a dilemma for our employees where they have to choose between training and working, which is the foundation of their livelihood. Paying our team to train sends a clear message of our commitment to them and to creating a culture that is driven by and that values knowledge.”

Is the program worth it?

“I’m thrilled with the results that I’ve seen thus far, even though our program is still nascent and it’s hard to quantify the gains. After just a few months, I’ve seen incredible growth not only in our apprentices, but also in our mentors growing as educators and role models. Long term, I’m certain this work will benefit safety, production and retention.

“However, I think the biggest benefit has been and will be cultural. The apprenticeship program has helped define a purpose and pathway for our people, and it has provided our company with a framework for good and sustainable workforce development, which is the foundation of our business,” says Earl. “Invest in your team and they will invest in you, and, in turn, you both will thrive.”

The Apprentice’s Point of View

Ryan Mack
Ryan Mack

Ryan Mack started in the green industry when he was 15. He turned 30 this year. In college, he was aiming to be a counselor until he realized how much he desired to be outdoors with his career.

“I have 15 years in the green industry, the last six focusing only on arboriculture. As a landscaper, I specialized in retaining walls and water features, which means I chopped endless tree roots in my early 20s! That is what sparked my transition into tree health and arboriculture,” says Mack.
“Questions started arising during my workdays, like, ‘What harm am I causing to these trees?’ It turns out I knew absolutely nothing about how to care for trees, and down the rabbit hole I went of endless knowledge in the world of trees,” he says.

Old Growth Tree Service began its apprenticeship program this year, 2023, and he was on board with the program from day one. The fact he was already an ISA Certified Arborist helped him tremendously with the apprenticeship, he notes, because he had studied the biology of trees for many years prior. This enabled him to focus more on the in-field skills, such as using aerial lifts and climbing.

“Having the apprenticeship ‘in house’ with co-workers I work with daily meant everything for me. I was able to ask questions I wouldn’t have in a classroom full of strangers. Also, I was able to push my comfort level, because I was training with people I trusted and counted on every day,” he says.

“My favorite part about tree care is knowing that I’m helping keep trees healthy for the next generations to enjoy and benefit from,” he adds.

Mack will soon gain journeyworker status. He is waiting for the state of Colorado to approve his last submission of files, and then should be good to go.

“Once a journeyworker, I will be able to be a mentor for the next round of individuals participating, which is what I am most excited about with this program,” he says.

Mack highly recommends apprenticeship to anyone working in the tree care industry. “We have had nothing similar in this industry compared to other trades, and it is exciting to watch it take off. Not only does it promote knowledge and skills and new ideas for you to use in your day-to-day work, but the entirety of the program is aimed toward absolute safety for you and your crew members.

“Safety is my number-one priority for everyone on a job site, including customers and the public we are working around, and every piece of this program begins with safety as the main goal,” he says.

Mack says he is excited to see this program grow, as well as the tree care industry. He says the program will help companies, and also will help workers become the best arborists possible.

“It is only a stepping-stone program in my opinion, the very beginning of a long and exciting journey within the world of trees,” he says. “And once completed, you can open doors to any part of this field you choose.”

Tamsin Venn is founding publisher of Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine and author of the book “Sea Kayaking Along the New England Coast,” and has been a contributing writer to TCI Magazine since 2011. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

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