TCIA Career Pathways, a new online education and training program, offers tree care workers new opportunities to advance their careers. At the same time, it provides individual companies an opportunity to provide structured training and create career pathways that can help stabilize their workforce.
With TCIA Career Pathways, the Tree Care Industry Association is offering companies a new learning management system (LMS) that provides self-directed, comprehensive hybrid training in multiple skill areas. The software includes TCIA-created content on an online learning platform called Brightspace. It combines online learning and testing with evaluations in the field.
Individual company “portals” – basically, a company’s own custom LMS powered by TCIA’s Brightspace – can easily be integrated with a company’s existing training culture.
TCIA first rolled out the program with a soft launch in fall 2022, and has since made it available to more than 20 companies.
Representatives at three companies, all early adopters of the new system and interviewed for this article, attest that the new program offers employees greater opportunities to develop their careers. The three companies are different sizes and began at different times, but those spoken with all cited similar desires to create a stronger, more engaged, more skilled and safer workforce.
“That’s absolutely it,” says LeeAnn Rutten, human resources manager at Carr’s Tree Service, a Utility Contractor-accredited, 27-year TCIA member company based in Ottertail, Minnesota. Carr’s has approximately 280 employees, and started with the portal in fall 2022. “We want to give our employees all the training necessary to be successful in their role in the company.”
For the same reasons, Teachers Tree Service, a 16-year TCIA member company based in Shelburne, Vermont, had been looking for a way to standardize its training for a couple of years before learning about the TCIA program, says Sarah Pears, operations manager. The 12-employee company began using the portal in April 2023, with the goal of standardizing training as well as pay scale.
“It’s important for employees to be able to see where they are in terms of their skill sets and their value to the company, and where they can go within the company,” Pears says. “It’s important for morale and for retention. If people don’t see a path forward, they’re going to start looking to go elsewhere. We have a talented, solid crew, and don’t want to lose them.”
“We have a talent-management system where we have career pathing for employees,” says Matt Evans, Board Certified Master Arborist and director of arboricultural training at Ryan Lawn & Tree, a 23-year TCIA member company based in Meriam, Kansas. Employees begin the programs from the time they start with the company, learning the company’s rules and culture as well as the basics of the skill set they’re working in, whether it’s pruning, plant health care, etc.
The employee-owned company provides landscape, plant-health-care (PHC) and tree-care services, with a 500-person workforce serving Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. They formally began using the portal in January 2023 as part of a talent-management strategy. “Our employees have a very clear career path so they understand how they can move up in the company through a simple formula, which is their performance on the job plus the education,” says Evans.
Shawn Sheffler, director of training at Ryan Lawn & Tree, notes that the young workforce is looking for transferable skills they can develop and use as they move on in their career.
“Part of serving that population, but also part of providing long-term growth for associates, is creating a structure of job bands (compensation ranges) and job levels and the ability to move upward,” Sheffler says. “Especially for some cultures, that’s even more important. It is all about our associates and the chance to grow and move, within the company or out.”
As he sees it, this is an investment in both employees and the company. “If you’re not a learning organization, you’re not a growing organization,” Sheffler says.
A new delivery method
TCIA has been offering field education in arboriculture for years, including live demonstrations and seminars, through at-home and online learning kits and employing hybrids such as this, where the classroom learning is delivered online and tested both online and with proficiency tests in the field.
“Brightspace allows us to create a custom subset of that learning-management system for the benefit of member companies,” explains Bryan Dalton, vice president of training and credentialing for TCIA.
Within the portal, there are courses at progressive levels: Tree Climber Specialist 1-4, Ground Specialist 1-4, and Aerial Lift Specialist 1-2. Each course has a system-navigation guide to assist the student in accessing all aspects of the course. In addition, each course offers a variety of modalities for engaged learning, such as videos, dynamic screen content and full narration. Within the course, a trainer may also elect to engage students outside of the classroom, with “classroom talk” via a discussion board as well as assignments and quizzes.
There are “awards” for students as they finish the lessons and prove proficiencies.
Each member company has its own Brightspace site, sometimes customized with other education important to the company. For example, at Ryan Lawn & Tree, it’s part of “Ryan University,” which also teaches about landscaping and other aspects of their business.
“The focus here is on these portals, which is the vehicle for which we are able to offer these courses,” Dalton says. “So currently, if someone were to make a purchase for an online course on the TCIA website, their employees would be dropped into a general population course. So, if they go into Ground Operations 1, they’re in a course with hundreds, if not thousands, of other individuals across the country, if not around the world. Their employer has no way of knowing, ‘Did they start the program? Did they finish? Did they fail the test? What’s going on?’ They have no line of sight to that activity.
“When we create a portal for our TCIA member company, we have a custom storefront, and they get put into a private course,” Dalton continues. “That private course is unique to the company, and we are able to give that company an administrative role, which allows them to see the progress of each individual in whatever courses they’ve been assigned.”
Participants will learn the concepts and be tested online, but also will demonstrate those competencies on the job site, with a skilled supervisor grading their work.
Often, but not always, the person supervising the skills demonstration also has passed a comprehensive trainer-qualification course. Always, they possess expertise in whatever their student is attempting, and work from a rubric (grading guide) that standardizes the assessment.
“They’re taught to do the work online, and then they do the work and it gets checked by somebody with competency,” Dalton says. “Ideally, that person has competency in training, but at the very least, it’s somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
“TCIA, and this training specifically, reaches all learning styles,” says Rutten of Carr’s Tree Care Service, which started the program with new employees as part of the onboarding process. “The visual, auditory and reading learning styles are all captured in the TCIA training. We start our new employees with on-the-job training on day one, reaching the kinesthetic (hands-on) learners. But before they even get out to the field, they have a base knowledge from TCIA.”
At Ryan, they have trained “learning coaches” in the field to conduct the assessments, Evans says. “That’s really where we find they learn the most,” he says.
Positive early results
The course is self-directed, which means students/employees can learn at their own pace. Those we talked to for this article considered that a positive thing, because after a long, hot day of tree work, going to a classroom might not appeal to many. Instead, student-employees can log in on their desktops at home or on their iPhones on break.
“They love just having an app on their phone that is easy to log on to and follow,” Rutten says. “When they finish one module on the app, the next module automatically opens to allow continuous learning. Our employees appreciate the ease of the app and the portal.“
“The reaction to the content has been great,” Dalton says. “The variety of methodologies we use, the narration, the videos and the interactive pieces of the course, as well as the flexibility and ease of access – to include using a cell phone – has just been over the top.”
Not surprisingly, some student-employees have become more immersed in the learning process than others. As Ryan Lawn & Tree’s Sheffler says, the company has done about 200 field assessments, and “some employees may have done one and some may have done 30.”
Teachers Tree Service has had a similar experience. “We had one guy basically blaze through it as soon as we opened it up, and he’s been kind of the cheerleader,” Pears says. “The other crew members have followed to one extent or another. I think we’re still working through the growing pains of adopting a system into a culture where there wasn’t really a system before. Not a formal system, at any rate.
“I think there’s a lot of value in giving people control over their own learning in addition to their own career path and pay scale,” Pears adds. “We are not paying for time employees spend on these courses. Our company policy is that when it comes to training or earning other certifications, including the ISA certification and pesticide-applicator licenses, things of that nature, we support employees by providing the study materials, but we are not paying someone by the hour to take those courses. They have to take the initiative and invest the time themselves to get through the courses and pass the course quizzes. Then they let us know when they’re ready to do the field tests to move up on this career path and pay scales.”
“Basically, they can choose to move up or they can choose not to,” says Evans, whose company made the portal available to every employee. “We know over time we’re going to gain more movement, but it’s moving as expected right now. Over time, as we integrate this with their reviews and that type of thing, the employees who stay with us are going to want to make more money, and this is their opportunity. I don’t think we’ll have any problem getting movement at all.
“Giving this much attention to safety and learning should make them confident that we care about their safety and want them to be working safely,” he adds.
A professional approach
Ultimately, what may determine the future of this program will likely be the attitude of those within the tree care industry.
“We view all of these things – arboriculture, turf care, irrigation management – as careers,” Evans says. “One thing we’re fighting is that, as an industry, a lot of times we’re viewed as just a job. At Ryan Lawn & Tree, we’re trying to grow more toward careers versus individual jobs. We pay people more than the average wage. We’re an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) company, so employees gain value in their company. They help grow the company, but also have career progression through the process.”
Employees who view tree work as a career and not just a job are the ones who will opt to move forward. In the same way, providing those opportunities reflects the company mission and its commitment to effectiveness.
“We’re well known in this area for delivering a quality service, and we want to maintain that,” says Pears, who describes Teachers Tree Service as having an interest in growing. “Being able to standardize for current and new employees is really important. It’s important that when a crew leader goes out on a job, they can have a reasonable expectation of what the other people on their crew know how to do, or don’t know how to do.
“That applies to me as the operations manager as well,” she continues. “When I’m putting together crews, it’s important for me to know if (an employee) knows how to run the ground part if we’ve got a climber in a tree. The best way to know that is to standardize the training and have documentation of training that has happened with each person.
“Our company culture is a big part of who we are and why everybody shows up to work five days a week for sometimes 10 hours a day,” says Pears. “We respect each other, work together, problem solve together. I think it’s apparent to clients, apparent even to our vendors, and it’s the kind of place where I want to work. Training people in a way that is in agreement with our expectations of them is all part of that.”
David Rattigan is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe and People magazine who has written for the Tree Care Industry Association for 19 years. He’s received 15 awards for journalism, and is currently an adjunct communications professor in Massachusetts. His work also has appeared in seven national magazines including, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, The Robb Report, The Christian Science Monitor and Lawyers’ Weekly USA.