Wherever you now stand in your career, you were once the “newbie” – the new employee, the new ground worker, the new trimmer, perhaps even the new owner. In each and every one of these changes – pages, if you will, in the story of your life – you were trained and you then needed to train the person who would replace you.
Now at the end of my long career in the trees, I am looking back with the idea of sharing some of what I have learned. So I’ll start at the beginning.
Way back when I was about 15, my friend, Dennis, and I stole Mrs. Flannagan’s clothesline, dragged a broken rung ladder from the shed and, using a rusty, skipped-tooth bow saw, cut down a dead Lombardy poplar tree. It was probably the worst notch ever cut, but we each made $5.
A few weeks later, we were still high on the lofty sum we had made when the neighborhood tree guy, Art, asked if we wanted a job. Both Dennis and I wheeled wood in a wheelbarrow around to the back of the house and up a hill and loaded it on a truck. The first day was 12 hours, the next was a bit longer. That night, as I lay exhausted in the bathtub, I credited my mom with saving my life before I, fast asleep and exhausted, sank below the waters to my death. The next day both Dennis and I went back, and Art offered us a summer job.
I did not know it at the time, but Art had offered me much more than just a job. He offered me a life-long vocation as well as his trust and mentoring. Art was no great climber. He was fearless and never climbed with a rope – just a set of hooks and an old lineman’s belt. What he did do was encourage me and train me to the limit of his experience. In his own way, he trained me. He also trusted me with a 1968 International 1650 4X4 truck and a 36-foot crane when I was 17.
I worked through high school in an
early-release program. Leaving the school in my truck, I’d go to the “shop,” where I would pick up the job details and a helper. We’d then proceed to pick up the piles of debris where the other crew had already been until we met up with them and finished out the day.
The chance to do all these things while still a teenager boosted my self-esteem and my desire to be the best I could be more than I can tell you. It is something we all need to do, a critical part of training our replacements. A word of caution on that is the need to recognize that they will fail from time to time. So did you and so did I.
Shortly after graduation, I left Art and went to The Davey Tree Expert Company. I have great respect for those folks, and they continued my education so that I received the honor of having my own crew at 19 years old. Davey taught me how to climb the right way and continued to reinforce a great work ethic. Every day it seemed I learned something new. It was there I learned about plant diseases and proper surgery techniques of the day. We still had hemp ropes back then and those long, curved speed saws, and I climbed everything. No hooks were allowed on the truck, we just shinnied up to the crotch.
I stayed with them until 1976, when I met some guys from the Davey Tree Utility Division and they told me they needed climbers. When I transferred to that division, I made 25 cents an hour more – a good bit back then. I also joined the union, the IBEW Local 1919 Tree Trimmers. We had only tree folk in it, the only union in the country that represented just trimmers.
With the union and line clearance, I had to adapt to another world, one that had energized wires in it – and close to me, too. Things were radically different then. I was taught how to climb up between them to piece the lead down. I was taught how to duck down in the lift and bump the top wire of the secondary, moving up just a bit until the wire “wiggled,” which meant I was clear of it and could rotate through and trim the tree. (When I started in line clearance, there were still a few lifts that had a hole cut in the side of the bucket. I never worked on one.)
I worked with a great bunch of guys; no women were on the job yet. The work was varied, some of it on the rights of way where the climbing was up and down side-trims all day, limb walking out over the streets in the city to clear the conductors. We did some bucket work, but it was still mostly climbing. As new machinery arrived, we were retrained on each particular piece. These included Skyworker bucket trucks that operated on cables, pneumatic air saws and Hi-Ranger and Asplundh lifts. Asplundh still made the LR lifts back then.
In the late ’80s, we, as a union, decided we needed to solidify training education because nothing existed for line clearance back then. Local 1919 petitioned the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training to come down and make it a recognized trade. I was one of those who met the federal rep that day, with tables pushed together holding all the materials we thought we would teach. We all sat down together and realized the need for training, and looked at the changes an apprentice would go through on their climb to be a journeyman.
Pittsburgh is a labor town, and many of the rights enjoyed by workers today had their start in Pittsburgh. The Department of Labor agreed, and we started the process. After a few years, I am proud to say, we graduated the first Certified Journeyman Line Clearance Tree Trimmers in the country. I was among that class as well as one of the trainers. I remain active as a trainer to this day, as all of us have, or should, in some capacity. We are all learning and all training.
One of the very important concepts I learned was that you will never be successful in your career until you train your replacement. The desire in our hearts, the knowledge in our minds and the skill in our hands cannot be learned from a book. They must be lived, acquired, earned and very often hard fought for through days of rain and heat and snow – and they must be passed on
Many times this training seems minor when you get it. I once had a supervisor show me another way to tie my boots so they would stay tied; I still use that technique today.
We once had a very strong apprentice climber who wanted to stay on the top of the limb all the time when walking out on it. One day I pointed out that the angle of his rope and the angle of the limb would allow him to “walk” out on the side of the limb without having to keep his balance. Because of where your anchor point is, you can lean back into the rope on the opposite side of the limb. A few years later, I watched this same climber, now a crew leader, climb a similar tree to show his apprentice how to do the same thing. He saw me and yelled out, “That’s the guy who showed me this.”
You never know how what you teach will impact another. My friend was one of the best natural climbers I ever worked with, and yet I got to teach him something that he passed on. When I moved on, he became one of my replacements. Never minimalize what you can pass on.
One of the mistakes we often make is that we do things within our own minds without sharing it. A pre-job survey is a great example. I am a climber first, so I walk to the tree from the truck. I notice the tree; I look at the other ones close by and compare their condition to the one I am going to. Are they the same size, color? Are they leaning, or out of sync in some way I can’t put into words? I get closer and break the tree into sections in my mind, looking for things I will need to know. Mushrooms on the ground, cavities, widowmakers, cracks, codominant stems, lightning or frost damage. Are there hazards? Are there electric wires and, if so, what kind, voltage and condition?
All these things run through the mind of a good climber before he or she says a word – but we need to say the words. We need to make sure the other crew members see the same things – especially if they are trainees. We need to not only say what we are looking for but also why it makes a difference and the implications of each item or observation. Checking these things off in a pre-job survey is great, but it is not enough.
It is not enough because the reasons and the intricacies of these issues cannot be assessed adequately on paper. We have the blessing to work with living organisms, and they are not all the same; they do not all react the same way. Modulus of rupture, or bending strength, is a great thing to understand, but you never will fully understand it until you apply it to different tree species and situations. “I know that this rope in this scenario will not support the function I want it to.” How? Because I have done it many times, and I learned by many failures as well!
We need to take the wood chip off our shoulders and become trainers. That means we will have to admit that we, personally, stink at some things. That’s OK, because no one is good at everything. If I send someone up a tree to remove some limbs, they can do it in many different ways. As long as it is safe, efficient and productive, they have the prerogative to do it the way they are comfortable with. Run out to the ends and handle everything – cool, if that is what you are good at. As for me, I would rather take a bit more time rigging and making fewer cuts, but that’s me. Let them be them – after you, as their trainer, show them all the ways it can be done.
Make sure it is done safely and, if things don’t go according to the plan you decided on, be sure you can handle the worst-case scenario. If you can, go for it; but if you can’t, find another way. That is true training, and it will instill confidence in the trainee much more than teaching only one way.
Make learning fun; it is still fun to climb trees, isn’t it?
Become the very best you can be – not for any company, but for yourself. The very best you can ever be involves taking that other person and giving them the opportunity to be better than you. Train your replacement, and when you get to the place I am now, sit back and smile. Be safe, and God bless you.
David McQuaid, CTSP, is a training instructor with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 1919, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.