Building on the Success of Last Year’s “Gear Up powered by Stihl” Program

It comes as no surprise that the future of the tree care industry depends on the ability to hire a new generation of qualified workers. To that end, the Tree Care Industry Association Foundation (TCIAF) and Stihl, Inc., have joined forces through a college-focused partnership called “Gear Up powered by Stihl,” which just completed its second successful year. This initiative brings much-needed equipment to colleges with active programs for students pursuing careers in arboriculture and other related industries.

Students from Allegany College of Maryland wearing the PPE they chose to purchase with their award. All photos courtesy of the featured college or university.

Last November at TCI EXPO in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, five winning colleges were announced for 2019. Each chosen school was awarded $5,000 to use toward the purchase of Stihl tree care equipment and/or personal protective apparel and gear. According to Lindsy Hooper, Stihl public-relations specialist, the awards were based on the colleges’ current programs in arboriculture, forestry, horticulture, etc., as well as their clear plans for growth and development of those programs. The top five schools, selected from a field of 21 applicants, also were chosen for their diversity in location and student mix as well as the level of detail and critical need displayed in their applications.

In addition to providing the five winning colleges with equipment awards, Stihl will give each of the winners a one-time special workshop or training session led by a local Stihl representative. “One of our top priorities (when choosing the winning schools) is geographic diversity,” says Hooper. “ We have 11 regional distributors across the country, and this (diversity) means they can better serve their local schools and give them individualized attention.”

Hooper notes that response to the “Gear Up powered by Stihl” program following its first year was enthusiastic. “I think everyone was really excited about it,” she says. “I also think these schools are really underserved. And, given the current conditions (due to COVID-19) and the economy, I think these kinds of trade skills and jobs are going to be more important than ever.”

Stihl already has committed to the Gear Up program for 2020 and is working closely with TCIA on a timeline. The deadline for 2020 applications is the first week of October.

Interestingly, one of the overriding trends in equipment purchases made by the first year’s (2018) winning schools was in battery-powered chain saws, most often cited as desirable for their safety features, clean and green technology and lighter weight compared to gas-powered equipment.

Here is a short synopsis of each of the 2019 winners, their programs and how their $5,000 “Gear Up powered by Stihl” award has been used to date.

Allegany College of Maryland, Cumberland, Maryland

As the only two-year college in Maryland to offer a major in forestry, Allegany is in a unique position to offer a quality, hands-on, practical educational experience for students, according to forestry program director Marie Miller. Miller herself attended Allegany for the first two years of her education before transferring to West Virginia University to complete her degree in Forest Resource Management.

“When I heard we got it (the award), I was so excited,” she says. “We’re a small school with a small budget, and it’s been a while since we’ve been able to purchase new chain saws. Everything we have now is gas powered. One of the things I’m most excited about is getting battery-powered saws. During our lab time, students actually carry out most of the tree care activities on campus, so hopefully now we’ll be quieter and less disruptive while classes are going on.”

According to Miller’s application, students at Allegany learn how to safely and efficiently operate chain saws, as well as proper pruning and climbing techniques. “They also learn how to operate heavy equipment, merchandise logs and develop a strong work ethic,” she adds. “We have excellent networking opportunities when industry representatives come to campus to teach or recruit. And we have an extremely high job placement for our graduates.”

Because of COVID-19 and the school being physically closed, Miller hopes to make up some of the students’ practical-experience time during summer session, when they do an actual timber harvest and practice felling, limbing and bucking. “Unfortunately, we’re also missing a lot of employer interaction we’d normally be having at this time of year,” she notes. “One company, though, Davey Tree, has offered to do an online IPM (integrated pest management) lab this semester.”

With the new Stihl chain saws, all-in-one sharpeners, pole saw and PPE that Miller is ordering, she says students will be better prepared to carry out their mission of tree care across campus as part of attending a designated Tree Campus USA. And last fall, about 15 students plus staff took part in Saluting Branches at Rocky Gap Veterans Cemetery, located about 15 minutes from campus. “I can see that becoming a long-term commitment,” she says.

As for the future of Allegany’s forestry program, Miller says she hopes to add a Tree Climbing II class and possibly a one-credit-hour course in landscape plant-species identification. She would also like to incorporate a nationally recognized chain-saw certification program into the curriculum, so students have proof of a formalized skill set when they graduate.

Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Oregon

A Clackamas Community College student climber is likely happy three climbing saws are among the new equipment purchased for the school’s program.

On his Gear Up application, Jim Wentworth-Plato explains that Clackamas Community College is two years into developing its state-education board-approved arboriculture program. The two-year program earns students an Associate of Applied Science degree. “We focus on being accessible to all students, being adaptable to changing needs and being accountable to our industry supporters,” he says. He adds that the program is overseen by a foundation comprised in part of local tree care businesses in the greater Portland area, including Collier Arbor Care, Bartlett Tree Experts, Treecology and General Tree Service. It’s this foundation, he says, that basically provided the funds for the program’s initial equipment purchases.

“Our students range in age from 17 to 45,” Wentworth-Plato notes. “We have both high school graduates and people looking for a new career choice. Some of them are on a long-term degree track, taking courses whenever they can. When they leave our program, other than having additional skills and experience, they should be able to pass the Certified Arborist exam and be ready to take a job in a private or municipal workplace.”

According to Wentworth-Plato, who operated a tree care business for 20 years, the school trains outside, in trees, using actual gear. “We had a couple of chain saws, but it’s hard when you have seven people standing around waiting to use them. The new equipment I ordered has improved our program considerably.”

That equipment includes three climbing saws and a ground saw, two battery-powered pole saws and some chainsaw chaps and shirts. “With the battery-powered stuff, it can sit around between semesters,” Wentworth-Plato explains. “With gas saws, the gas can go bad if you’re not using it all the time or doing regular maintenance.”

He adds that he had already scheduled the college’s workshop with the Stihl factory rep from Washington state when the coronavirus struck. “We were originally planning for fall, but that may have to change. He was going to go over some of the technical and maintenance issues, things like carburetors and cleaning. Instead, we’re going online with some course work, things like tree diagnostics and plant ID. We just can’t do the practical stuff right now.”

As the Clackamas arboriculture program grows, Wentworth-Plato hopes to introduce an indoor training facility that would allow students to work in a controlled environment while actually running equipment and moving aerially. “It would be an indoor area of trees for learning climbing, felling techniques and more. In a learning environment like ours, especially in our part of the country, being able to train indoors would be a definite advantage.”

Huntley College of Agriculture, Pomona, California

A Huntley College of Agriculture student. The school tries to create awareness of arboriculture as a career path; the new equipment should help.

As part of Cal Poly Pomona in eastern Los Angeles County, Huntley attracts students from as far away as Ventura County – a two-hour one-way commute, according to adjunct faculty member Tracey Takeuchi. The college, located in an underserved area of Southern California, has more than 200 students in its undergraduate agriculture program, the majority of whom are Hispanic. The program also currently has more female students enrolled than male.

Takeuchi, who is a Certified Arborist and has served on the board of the Western Chapter of ISA, says she has a passion for her students and seeing them grow. She adds that the school has a nearly 100% placement of its students in employment after graduation. “But we can do even better for them if we have more modern, higher-quality equipment.”

According to Takeuchi, the Stihl equipment-purchasing process was stalled when the pandemic hit. “This COVID thing struck when we were hoping to gather all the faculty together for input,” she says. “I think we’re most interested in getting electric chain saws and pole saws. We have lots of female students, and it’s just easier for them, or any smaller-framed student, to operate an electric saw.”

Takeuchi notes that the coronavirus has left many of her students in a difficult situation, saying some don’t have the equipment they need to study at home, like computers. “Bandwidth is another issue, since they might be sharing one computer for their family. Then there are students with limited transportation options. I also had one female student say she doesn’t feel safe leaving her apartment right now.”

To further the future of Huntley’s arboriculture student base, the school held its first-ever Student Summit last December, inviting high school and college students to attend in an effort to “encourage a broader understanding of arboriculture as a career.” The event was attended by about 125 students and 15 vendors, including Mauget, Davey Tree, Stihl, BrightView, Bartlett and Disney. “We had quite a good response,” she says. “I had so many students come up to me afterward and say, ‘I had no idea this was a career path.’ We hope to do this (Summit) again, but everything for 2020 is up in the air right now.”

One project Takeuchi hopes will go forward this year is a dedicated horticultural research space at Spadra Park, located at Huntley’s teaching farm. “My hope is that this will become a permanent outdoor lab where students can practice pruning and the care of plant material, color and design, tree planting and tree care maintenance.”

Southern University and A&M College, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Southern University and A&M College students donning their PPE while learning about the safe and proper use of a chain saw.

For almost 30 years, Southern University and A&M College has been graduating top urban-forestry students, according to program director Kamran Abdollahi. He adds that it’s the pilot program in urban forestry for Louisiana and initially was launched with an investment made by the State of Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The school’s Urban Forestry and Arboriculture program provides valuable, hands-on training for its students who are involved in urban-forest restoration, tree planting, tree pruning and even hurricane res ponse and tree-risk assessment. And the program is growing, according to Abdollahi. “Currently we have 105 students, and we anticipate an additional 50 students through scholarships in the next five years. We’ve been fortunate in that the USDA has provided scholarship funds for many of our agriculture students.”

Getting additional equipment and supplies for these new students is one of the goals Abdollahi has for the Gear Up award. “We were working with our local Stihl distributor to put together a list of what we could get for the $5,000,” he says. “We had already scheduled our (Stihl) workshop as well as the delivery of the equipment, and of course, it all came to a screeching halt (with the coronavirus). We pretty much are getting chain saws and supporting equipment. Our students want the lighter, battery-operated chain saws – clean energy definitely is a focus for them.

“I’m sure getting the equipment this semester is out of the question,” he adds. “Hopefully we’ll have it for the fall, or maybe even by mid-summer for our series of modules we call the Bayou Program. That would be a great opportunity to use the new equipment.”

Abdollahi says the college’s urban-forestry program has benefited greatly from collaborations with companies like Asplundh, Davey Tree and Arbormasters, which provide everything from training “all the way to recruitment and placement” for students. “The City of Baton Rouge also has been really good in terms of getting our students involved in urban-forest management,” he adds. “They have our students doing tree-risk assessment, planting for specific sites, monitoring those plantings – and they’re also employing our students! Baton Rouge Parks & Rec has been another significant contributor to training our students.”

University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire

UNH students harvest timber, where they learn how to fell trees safely. They are shown here in a non-hazardous training lecture off campus. The school’s equipment award will go for new backpack sprayers and PPE, including chaps, hard hats and belt-style first-aid kits for climbing.

The University of New Hampshire has been graduating tree care professionals and foresters for almost a century, according to Ethan Belair, director of the Forest Technology program, which includes arboriculture and forestry. “UNH has had a forestry program since 1919,” he says. “That was back when forestry was king in New Hampshire. Since then, we’ve seen the entire industry change, and there’s a growing demand for skilled, confident tree care professionals.

“I’m in my first year as the faculty in charge of our arboriculture program, and I’m trying to rework our offerings to prepare students to work in the industry as it is today,” Belair continues. “Quite honestly, some of that has to do with logistics, to adapt our program to better serve what the industry needs. That includes updates to our curriculum as well as to our safety equipment and climbing systems.”

Currently, the UNH program has 15 students and includes an arboriculture course as well as forestry courses that have crossover applications to arboriculture, like insects and disease and timber harvesting, where students learn skills like how to run a chain saw and fell trees safely. “We want to be sure they’re getting the whole suite of skills, since we don’t know which end of the spectrum they’ll end up on,” he notes.

With part of the equipment award, Belair plans to get new backpack sprayers for a lab in invasive-species control that he hopes to launch next year. “UNH has about 2,000 acres within a 20-minute drive of the main campus where we have the opportunity to do labs,” he says.

Also on Belair’s equipment list is PPE, including new chaps, hard hats and beltstyle first-aid kits for climbing. “I want to get students in the habit of carrying these every day,” he says. To round things out, he says he’s looking at getting a couple of mid-sized chain saws for felling, bucking and sectioning trees, plus a battery-powered saw that will be more useful for climbing and arborist work.

Since his outdoor class activities are curtailed right now, Belair has come up with an ingenious plan to keep students engaged and outdoors as much as possible, given social distancing. “It’s basically a photo scavenger hunt,” he says. “I go out in the woods with my cell phone and record short videos, and say things like, ‘See this wound?’ or ‘See this branching pattern? What does this tell you about the health of this tree?’ Then they go out in the woods near their homes and take photos of similar things. These are students who want to be outside and active, so the more they can be outdoors, the better.”

For more information or to receive an application for the 2020 “Gear Up powered by Stihl” program, contact Meagan Pukhtiar at mpukhtiar@tcia.org, or call 800-733-2622.

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