Why Apprenticeship? One Company’s Journey

This past November, I enjoyed the opportunity of sharing some of my experiences with the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program alongside August Hoppe at TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was really energizing to share what we’ve learned so far with those who attended the talk.

Man in green jacket wearing a helmet working with an orange rope in
Andrew Wintergerst, shown here on the job, is a registered arborist apprentice with We Love Trees, the author’s company in Niwot, Colorado. All photos courtesy of We Love Trees.

In my generation, we experienced a de-emphasis on skilled trades. Our society neglected the career pathways for people to find meaningful and fulfilling work outside of the academic ones. Careers that didn’t require an academic degree were often portrayed as inferior. As a society, we encouraged students to take on large debt for education with a promise of future earnings to pay off those debts.

We are now seeing a shift in our awareness and a shift in federal and state government support of skilled trades. We see that, in order to have a healthy society and economy, we need to invest in all types of career paths, especially ones that serve the real needs of our communities and the people who live in them. It’s easy to see how important it is to have career paths that enable employees to earn while they learn.

Filling a need

Ask any company owner what their biggest impediment to growth is and they will tell you, “People.” How do we recruit, train and retain skilled professionals to work in our businesses and serve our communities? How can we make sure these jobs appeal to people we haven’t reached yet?

Apprenticeship provides a career pathway that parents of high school graduates understand and can support. It also attracts a different demographic of people who are looking for a structured training program that provides them with skills and credentials that are transportable. It enables us to access more candidates to work in our businesses. Apprenticeship is a rising tide that lifts all ships.

When I was in high school, I took woodshop class every year, played sports and had physical education. These hands-on methods of learning were important to me. In some ways, it was a saving grace that gave me a way to work and create with my hands. It was a type of kinesthetic learning. It was an outlet that helped me feel balanced and satisfied, while also having to go back and sit for hours in a classroom environment.

Apprenticeship is part of a future that helps us to reconnect with this type of learning-while-working model.

What is Registered Arborist Apprenticeship?

Basically, Registered Arborist Apprenticeship is a “new” old way of growing arborists. Apprenticeship as a model of learning is quite old, dating back almost 4,000 years to the time of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king. Back then, people recognized that the best way to gain mastery of a trade was through a formalized process of practice and mentoring with a journeyworker That is still true today. Most of us have learned our skills and knowledge through practicing with and learning from others who have mastered these skills.

Arborist Apprenticeship is this process of mentoring and practice adapted into a formalized program. The guidelines of the program are registered with the United States Department of Labor (USDOL). These guidelines roughly define the skills, competencies and pathway for an apprentice to become a journeyworker arborist. The guidelines registered with the USDOL are minimum requirements. If a company that has a Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program wants to include more requirements, they have the flexibility to do so in their individualized program with their state Department of Labor.

For my company, We Love Trees, we have our program registered as a Competency-Based model. In a Competency-Based model, the apprentice needs to demonstrate competency in all the required skills areas in order to complete the program and be recognized as a journeyworker. Most programs in Colorado are now being registered as Competency-Based.

Apprentices must be in the program for at least one year in order to demonstrate these competencies. If the employee comes in with no experience, they are typically required to be in the program for two years before completion. While in the program, the apprentice also is required to complete 144 hours of related instruction per year. This related instruction can be accomplished in many different forms.

Options for related instruction

seven people standing with certificates they earned
This group of six graduated from the apprenticeship program at Front Range Community College in Colorado in March 2023. When an apprentice completes the program, they are recognized as having met all the requirements of the DOL guidelines.

The Arborist Apprenticeship training manual and the online courses that have been created by TCIA are two ways to complete this related learning. Company-specific trainings, attending classes at a local college, such as Front Range Community College (FRCC) in Colorado, and other training that matches the subject matter also are permitted as ways to meet this related-instruction requirement. The company, aka the “Sponsor,” vets and approves the related instruction to ensure it meets the requirements for the subject matter.

When an apprentice completes the program, they are recognized as having met all the requirements of the DOL guidelines, and they receive a certificate of completion. The journeyworker certificate becomes a transportable credential they keep with them for the rest of their career.

In my view, this is one of the value propositions of Arborist Apprenticeship and why I believe apprenticeship and other “Earn to Learn” programs are gaining traction.

Tree Care Sector Partnership

In Colorado, we implemented the Arborist Apprenticeship program by first establishing a Tree Care Sector Partnership. This isn’t a required step to have Arborist Apprenticeship at your company, but since this was a new endeavor for us in Colorado, we elected to embrace a partnership. The partnership operates in the spirit of working together to improve our industry and sees competition as an opportunity to strive together toward a common goal.

The Tree Care Sector Partnership is a group of private, local companies and local municipalities that work together to help solve our workforce challenges. We meet monthly via Zoom, have a leadership team and periodically bring in outside guests.

The Colorado Tree Care Sector Partnership is currently chaired by Megan Townsend of Altitude Arborists. I served as a past chair, having followed Adrian Camacho of the City of Aurora, who first served in that role. Our leadership team members also include Kelly Gouge of SavATree, David Merriman of ArborScape and Mike Earl from Old Growth Tree Service.

We see Registered Arborist Apprentice-ship as a way to raise the professionalism and skills of our profession in Colorado.

Realizing success

A white certificate with black lettering and a gold stamp in the middle.
Andrew Wintergerst’s DOL certificate of completion for the arborist apprenticeship program.

We partnered with FRCC to build out the related instruction curriculum, utilizing TCIA’s Arborist Apprenticeship Training Program for the Registered Arborist Apprenticeship program. FRCC has been an invaluable partner in delivering the related instruction and supporting the program.

In spring 2023, we graduated our second cohort of six arborist apprentices who completed their related instruction through FRCC, using the TCIA online curriculum. Last year, we had four apprentices graduate from the program to become journeyworker arborists. The first journeyworker arborist in Colorado was an employee of Affordable Tree Service, whose apprentice completed the program by doing all their related instruction through their employer, independent of the community-college instruction.

This just goes to show that you don’t have to partner with a college or larger organization to take advantage of the benefits of a Registered Arborist Apprenticeship at your company.

What are the challenges to getting started?

Creating our apprenticeship program was one of the easier things I have done for our business. My business is small. Right now, we are a total of five people.

For me, the steps were to email the director of the Office of Apprenticeship and ask her to send me the paperwork. She sent it over with the documents to sign. I had to decide if I wanted to open it up to military veterans so they could use their GI Bill funds to help offset costs of the related learning. Of course, I said yes.

I also had to decide whether we wanted to open it up to people who were previously incarcerated. I also said yes to this, because tree care can be a good fit for people who are rebuilding their lives after making mistakes. Also, I wanted to make sure that if I hired someone like this, I’d have access to available funds to support them.

I had to define a starting wage and the wage adjustments that would be achieved as the apprentices progressed through the program, as well as the ending wage. Due to the reality of the labor market and inflation, my apprentice is currently making more than I initially set as the wage for a journeyworker.

The next step was to register our apprentice in the Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information Database System (RAPIDS). This is the federal database that tracks the apprentice’s hours. My administrator handles this data entry and keeps the RAPIDS system up to date.

I also borrowed the job book, listing all the various skills that August Hoppe and the folks in Wisconsin put together, and adapted it for our company.

Overcoming hurdles

There is some administrative tracking time that can seem like a challenge, but really isn’t that cumbersome. Typically, this is one to two hours per month, which most companies can handle. We pay our apprentices for their classroom time and for the classes, so that can feel like a high cost to the business at times.

The intention is that the initial investment in the employee helps to define their future with our company. From my perspective, investing in our employees to be well-trained professionals is worth it, even if they move on from our company in the future. We’ve done our part to raise the professionalism of our industry and the people who work in it.

A unique value proposition

To be clear, Registered Arborist Apprenticeship isn’t for every tree care business. But it is a way to offer a unique value proposition to potential employees. It also is a way to distinguish your company and attract quality people who want to be well trained.

If you are considering Registered Arborist Apprenticeship, I’d encourage you to connect with others in our industry who have experience with this model of training to see if it seems like a good option for your business and your people.

Josh Morin, Board Certified Master Arborist and Certified Treecare Safety Professional, is owner of We Love Trees, a four-year TCIA member company based in Niwot, Colo. He is also a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors.

This article was based on his co-presentation, made with August Hoppe, 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.

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