Unprecedented times call for creative solutions, and that certainly was the case as Stihl and the Tree Care Industry Association Foundation (TCIAF) joined forces to find a way to involve students in this year’s Virtual Summit ’21, being held January 13-15. The decision not to hold TCI EXPO this past fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Student Career Days – always a highlight for vocational and college students fortunate enough to attend – had to be sidelined as well.
Last year’s Student Career Days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was attended by more than 150 students from 20 colleges and vocational schools across the country. These students were given the chance to network, attend educational sessions and explore potential career paths. Every year, the event also has been a time for potential employers to vet their tree care companies and even arrange for future employment opportunities through the Student Career Days Job and Internship Fair.
Of course, this year all of that has changed. “As live events were getting canceled all across the country, we saw the handwriting on the wall,” says Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for Stihl Inc., one of the major sponsors of Student Career Days. “We saw this coming a long way off and were in contact with TCIA (about Student Career Days) to discuss, ‘How do we pivot, how do we become relevant today in light of the pandemic?’
“The need is still there,” Phelps continues. “It never dawned on us to withdraw from this event. We figured either we can wring our hands and focus on our problems, or we can lace up our boots and come up with a solution. And as we all know, the tree care profession is great at solving problems. So, we got together with the team at TCIA and that’s what we did – we came up with a solution.”
That solution was for Stihl to offer 200 student scholarships to Virtual Summit ’21, awarded on a first-come, first-served basis and covering the complete $150-per-student fee.
“As part of a continued effort to introduce students to resources and opportunities in their fields (arboriculture, horticulture, forestry and other related programs), Stihl agreed to sponsor 200 college students to attend Summit for free,” says Meagan Pukhtiar, TCIA’s recruitment and workforce development manager. “Students will have the same experience as all other attendees – except they do not have to pay the $150 non-member registration fee. It’s a wonderful opportunity!”
“This event – EXPO and Student Career Days – has always been our highlight each year,” says Phelps. “But this (COVID situation) has forced us out of our comfort zone, and it may even provide some opportunities that weren’t there before. For instance, transportation to EXPO was a real challenge for some students. This year, students living farther away will be able to ‘attend’ the event, when they might not have been able to in the past.”
From a technology standpoint, Phelps says they are looking to the schools to make this virtual event a success. “It will be very education oriented,” he says. “It will expose students to the tree care industry and will explain the benefits of arboriculture as a career.”
Stihl spokesperson Mark Chisholm, an ISA Certified Arborist and three-time winner of the ISA International Tree Climbing Championship, “will provide a presentation on careers in arboriculture, as well as skills and techniques,” says Phelps.
Pukhtiar explains, “The session on careers in arboriculture will be about 45 minutes long, with plenty of time to ask Mark direct questions after his talk. Mark will summarize many common job types, including ground operators, tree climbers, plant health care (PHC) technicians, equipment operators and crane-crew options, as well as municipal and arboretum research openings.”
“The team (from TCIA and Stihl) has put in a great effort to come up with a plan for students this year,” adds Phelps. “And I think the best thing for us to do is to continue to get creative with these types of virtual events going forward, because live events still might be limited during 2021. I’m sure we don’t want to think that way, but it’s a very real possibility.”
Another very real development, according to Phelps, is the challenge educators are facing in switching over to virtual learning. “Someone coming out of school may lack some of the (hands-on) skills we saw before, but that’s just the reality of COVID,” he says. “It remains to be seen what kind of impact businesses will feel from this, though.
“Hiring someone who is enthusiastic and passionate about the industry is perhaps more important than hiring someone who has all the skills but is lukewarm,” he continues. “Companies might have to invest more in entry-level training, but often, I think businesses would rather train to their standards anyway. Of course, any student who has skills like climbing, cutting – anything along those lines – is going to be a plus.”
In the brave new world of virtual learning, educator Tracey Takeuchi, ISA Certified Arborist and adjunct faculty member at Huntley College of Agriculture, part of Cal Poly Pomona in eastern Los Angeles County, California, says that hands-on learning has become very challenging for both students and faculty. She has taken to filming GoPro demonstrations for students to try to replicate learning outdoors, as she explains in her TCIA podcast, “Being an Educator During a Pandemic.”
Huntley College of Agriculture was one of five winning colleges awarded $5,000 to use toward the purchase of Stihl tree care equipment and PPE in the 2019 “Gear Up powered by Stihl” initiative. The program will continue in 2021.
“I have to be very sensitive to student stress (about COVID),” Takeuchi notes. She goes on to say that many students lack the tools at home that they normally would have access to on campus, as well as the technology for successful online learning. From a personal standpoint, she says that in her role as an educator, she is “learning how to maneuver through this really horrible thing called Blackboard.” To listen to Takeuchi’s complete podcast, go to https://podcast.tcia.org/educating-during-a-pandemic/.
One thing seems certain in this pandemic age – virtual events and online learning are absolute necessities for the foreseeable future.