Recently, I witnessed a two-person crew from a local tree care company setting up a job. Cones, wheel chocks, proper signage – all the indicators of a well-trained crew. Their leader set up a bucket truck, but before he began aerial operations, he took the other crew member to the chipper. What I saw next was concerning – the crew leader was showing his partner how to run the machine.
Having trained people throughout my career, I recognized the body language of a new employee with no experience. And he was about to be working on the ground alone. I’m not sure what the circumstances were, but the crew abruptly packed up the job site and moved on before any work took place.
I’m sure this is an all-too-familiar story to most readers – not the packing up and changing job sites part (which most arborists are unfortunately familiar with), but when, if a crew member calls out an issue or you have a new hire who is an immediate fill-in for a departing employee, there are sometimes difficult choices to make. The competing priorities of production versus training are then compounded by the diversity of skill levels on a staff, leaving management in a difficult predicament.
Getting the right training to staff members during their phases of development can be challenging. Below are some observations gathered from industry colleagues and my own thoughts on effective training methods based on skill level.
The first 48
Greenhorn, newbie, groundie – however you refer to them, new hires present challenges for a business during peak season. The first two days of employment are critical. HazCom, driving tests and all the paperwork can bury an owner or manager, leaving little time for anything other than “checking boxes.” Do you know anyone who was handed a helmet, gloves and glasses and sent directly into the field without training? It happened to me – minus the helmet, gloves and glasses, of course (I won’t mention the name of the company).
The Z133 standard for safety requirements is very clear about what PPE is needed for arboricultural operations, and also states, “Training shall be provided on the inspection, use, care, maintenance, fit, and replacement of personal protective equipment.” (ANSI Z133-2017, 3.3.3) Failure to adhere to this simple step not only violates industry standards but also creates an unsafe working environment due to lack of training.
So they know how to drag brush and run the chipper. Good to go, right? The first six months of employment have a high frequency of incidents throughout the industry. This is not the time to create a lull in training. In my experience, a mixture of hands-on training and concise documents is effective at this skill level. Keeping short lengths of rope around to practice tying knots and Tailgate Safety meeting documents can be effective for engaging this group.
The training in this phase of someone’s progression will be the foundation for their understanding of safe work practices. Regardless of the tasks being performed, consistent reinforcement is critical. At this phase, a mentor or the old-school buddy system can be an effective means of engagement. Pairing someone who is still learning the tricks of the trade with an intermediate- or advanced-skill-level employee can pay off for both. It allows for consistent, progressive training to assist the beginner during their development.
These employees are so excited to get that first harness. So much anodized aluminum and colorful cordage. They know some knots, and they’re eager to get off the ground. On-the-job (OTJ) training is often the way this group is trained, and it is effective in many cases. However, I’ve also found that this group likes to know they are being taught. The essence of training is to allow for failure without consequence, i.e., trial and error. Very few people are proficient at climbing techniques immediately after being shown them, and the “error” would be jobs not getting done or training being rushed. Periodically taking this group out of a production setting for training can be incredibly effective and engaging. It’s a long-term investment in skills for what is commonly the most eager group on staff. Employees who fall into this category often make excellent mentors for the Beginner group. Developing good leaders is difficult, but the first step often can be as simple as assigning a trainee for an employee to coach.
And now they’ve got the skills (and they know it). In my experience, these are the employees who are the most vocal about the desire for training, but it comes with challenges. How do you train the most skilled people on staff who are already teaching the others? I’ve found that outside training can be very effective to the employees in this group. Without external resources, the staff culture can get stale very quickly. It doesn’t necessarily need to be open-enrollment-type training seminars. Getting involved in climbing competitions can be an excellent connection for those employees who are looking for the next level of training. These events are a great way to get climbers involved with the community and to learn some tips and tricks along the way.
Tips for success
These are not out of any management playbook or training seminar. These are things that have worked for me and others around the industry.
• Make lists. Sound tedious? It is at first. Making a checklist that can be used as a template for future employees will be a time saver for management. It also will assist in making sure that training is thorough and fulfills ANSI/OSHA requirements.
• Make time. Easier said than done. I’ll admit it, I tend to lose track of things when I get busy, and the most useful tool I’ve found is my calendar. Schedule training. Block off time to ensure crew members have the skills and safety training they need for success.
• Check in. Just because someone has been trained on a task does not mean they will end up performing the task well. No matter how good a trainer you may be or may have, following up on the training is critical. This is also where you can find potentially misunderstood new skills that could lead to unsafe behaviors.
• Get everyone involved. While developing new employees, involve the more senior staff. Retraining is critical to ensuring that complacency doesn’t force the crew down an unsafe path.
• Set goals. Talk with the staff and co-workers and find out what people want to learn. It’s a great way to find training deficiencies in the team and separate out what needs to be group training or staff members who need individual attention.
• Figure out what works for your staff. One of my key takeaways from CTSP training was that one needs to know one’s audience. I’ve met many people in tree care who have said they “learn by doing.” But some don’t. Some need to read a document or be shown several times before attempting a new technique or skill on their own. Be aware of their learning needs.
Collectively, we need to move the industry away from the “Let’s see how they do” mentality of training. Build programs, be safe and be successful.
Mike Tilford, CTSP, is director of general tree care for SavATree, a 35-year TCIA member company headquartered in Bedford Hills, New York. He is an ISA Certified Arborist, Municipal Specialist, a Certified Tree Worker – Climber Specialist and an ITCC head judge and gear inspector.