When a Different Approach to Hiring Breaks Open the Candidate Pool

Judith Menzl is one of They Might Be Monkeys’ three women climbers. All photos courtesy of They Might Be Monkeys.

“As a woman coming into the tree care industry, you have to be interested and dedicated to learning right off the bat, because representation is so low and there are few examples of women having this job and being successful in it. You can’t help but admire that,” says Larissa Swindle, office manager for They Might Be Monkeys! Texas Tree & Land Co., a TCIA member company based in Austin, Texas.

According to management consulting firm Korn Ferry, there is projected to be a global, human-talent shortage of more than 85 million people by 2030, resulting in a loss of $8.5 trillion dollars in annual revenue. Additionally, the Society for Human Resource Management polled HR professionals and discovered that 75% reported having difficulty recruiting skilled candidates. This begs the question: If skills are teachable, is it better to recruit candidates based on interest?

Judith Menzl
Role: Climbing arborist
Years on the crew: 3.5
Proudest moment: “Definitely getting ISA certified. I worked really hard for that and felt very, very proud. I didn’t even feel that level of pride when I earned my masters in German studies. It didn’t feel important enough to me, I couldn’t get motivated to do anything with it. It’s frustrating that I’ve gotten more praise for earning an advanced degree that I don’t even use than for earning my ISA certification and doing a job I love, where I feel like I’m making a difference.”
Favorite gear: “The Kask helmet is amazing, because you can wear it with a ponytail or a braid.”

They Might Be Monkeys seems to think so. This small team, varying in size from six to eight employees at any given time, has experienced tremendous success when hiring based on interest and passion. “While we do occasionally hire candidates without any experience, generally, I’m looking for people who have expressed a desire to work with trees and have enough related experience that they can train on the job without significantly impacting production,” says Nevic Donnelly, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and owner of They Might Be Monkeys. One great resource for the company has been the Texas Conservation Corps, resulting in new hires with experience in wildland firefighting, invasive-species removal and trail maintenance.

Candace Matthews on the job. “I’m not a female arborist, I’m an arborist, and for me that’s the most important thing,” says Matthews.

Most notable, perhaps, isn’t just where their team members came from, but that 75% of the team is women. Today, this includes three tree climbers, Candace Matthews, Judith Menzl and Layla Prestwood, and office manager Larissa Swindle. “When I got into this industry, it was nothing but a boys’ club,” says Donnelly. “Half of the world is men; the other half is women. Having a more well-rounded representation of people who live in the world brings a lot of perspective and wisdom to the workplace, more accurately reflects real life and feels more like a family.”

Candace Matthews
Role: Climbing arborist
Years on the crew: 2
How she found TMBM: “I had just returned to Austin from traveling and studying Spanish in Central America. I used to ride my bike by They Might Be Monkeys and thought it would be an interesting place to work. I’ve always had a love for nature and trees in general, and I had experience doing trail work with the Texas Conservation Corps. I wasn’t sure what to expect working in tree care. The first day, I saw dudes climbing with ropes in a tree, with chain saws. It seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do, so I stuck around because I’m always up for a challenge. I did leave to do tree work in New Zealand for a year and spent two years teaching in New Mexico before returning to the crew. Something I recommend to anyone who wants to have a career in tree care is to work for different crews, and especially to travel abroad, because there are different standards and tree cultures abroad.”
Favorite gear: “Honestly, I don’t gravitate toward comfort. I just find something and make it work.”

“I have been working in the industry off and on for around three years, and have noticed how the culture is changing. I’m not a female arborist, I’m an arborist, and for me that’s the most important thing,” emphasizes Candace Matthews, climbing arborist for They Might Be Monkeys. “Nevic makes us feel seen and heard, and he’s accommodating. I think we are a rare case that having a family vibe is the truth.”

Emphasis on education

Larissa Swindle has been managing They Might Be Monkeys for almost 15 years.

They Might Be Monkeys takes education very seriously, putting heavy emphasis on upward mobility in the tree care industry. “Some other tree companies are about fast pace and getting stuff done, and the end result is feeling like you’ve worked yourself to the bone,” says Prestwood. “Working for Nevic, you can take your time to learn and do it right, do what’s best for the tree, and you can work smarter instead of harder. We’re also fortunate to benefit from classes and training that help us improve and grow our skills.” Both Matthews and Menzl are ISA certified and are preparing to sit for their ISA Tree Risk Assessment Qualification, and Prestwood is qualified to sit for the ISA Certified Arborist exam.

While some learning comes from structured training, much can be gained through volunteering. “Everybody at our company takes responsibility at least once per year to volunteer in the industry,” says Donnelly. “Judith sits on the committee for the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop in Texas, and will soon begin to teach a portion of the Certified Arborist preparation exams. Candace has volunteered as a quartermaster for the Texas Tree Climbing Championship, and everyone on the crew has served as a judge or technician for the Championship. They do some of their volunteering on company time, but they also volunteer in their personal time. Layla spent her entire two-week Christmas break doing disaster relief in Kentucky after the 2021 tornadoes.”

Crew member and climbing arborist Layla Prestwood adds, “Having that break really pressed the reset button for me to see all the ways I’ve grown in the past two years. I came back to work with fresh eyes and perspective on how I’ve improved my skills and confidence with work, and validated how much I know and am capable of.”

Larissa Swindle
Role: Office manager
Years on the team: 13
Proudest moment: “I recommended a candidate, Chris Corville, who didn’t have industry experience, but he was a nature enthusiast and had qualities I thought would be a great fit for the crew. Nevic interviewed him and left the hiring decision to me. Chris joined the team and became one of our most valuable employees. He left, but will be coming back to a managerial role we’re creating for him. It was my first time having a voice in who we brought on, and it turned out to be exactly right. After the success of that hiring decision, I’ve been involved in our hiring ever since. We can draw a line directly from me bringing Chris onto the crew to the company being open to hiring women, because we had already started looking at hiring from the perspective of hiring for interest and passion rather than hiring the person who can get up the tree the fastest.”

Research has shown that employer-sponsored educational opportunities and easy access to volunteerism help create an engaged and committed workforce. Engaged employees look forward to coming back to work each day, knowing they’re contributing in a way that is both unique and beneficial to them. “Happy and healthy environments are a human-resources issue. When you put your crew’s needs at the forefront, solutions present themselves, regardless of whether or not your crew is men or women,” states Swindle.

Egalitarian leadership style

According to an article written for the Harvard Business Review by Brian Kropp and Emily Rose McRae of Gartner, a research and advisory resource for human resources decision-makers, fairness and equity will be the defining issues for organizations in 2022. While this article was written with the lens of trends that will shape work for the average company managing the implications of COVID in the workplace, longer-term technological transformation and continued DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) journeys, the statement stands true regardless of industry.

“There’s no such thing as a one-man show,” emphasizes Donnelly. “I’d feel lost without any of the individuals on my team, because they all show exceptional leadership skills and they all have incredible passion for the work.” Donnelly suggests his leadership style supports an egalitarian power structure with a focus on keeping each other safe. This sentiment was echoed by each team member.

“I was always seen as an equal when I trained with Nevic, and it was an amazing experience. I respect him for giving that to me, which is why I came back after a year working abroad in New Zealand,” states Matthews.

Similarly, colleague and fellow climbing arborist Judith Menzl says, “Nevic treats everyone with respect. He will listen to anyone, even someone who’s just starting on the crew. If it’s their first day and they read the Z133 and have something to say, he’ll listen to their input.”

Layla Prestwood
Role: Climbing arborist
Years on the crew: 2
On finding tree care: “I got my feet wet working for the Texas Conservation Corps doing disaster response. We learned how to use chain saws to fell trees and do shaded fuel breaks and trail maintenance. When I ended that program, I was looking for similar work. Austin has so many tree care companies, but a friend of mine worked at They Might Be Monkeys and helped me get my foot in the door. Starting out in this industry didn’t feel scary or overwhelming, because the conservation corps helped prepare me for this with knowledge and experience. I felt like I belonged there doing this type of work.”
Favorite gear: “I recently got a pair of Clogger Zero chain-saw pants and Arborwear women’s chain-saw pants. Finding women’s work pants is hard enough, but finding ones that fit is even harder, because I’m a petite person, but these brands fit so well!”

A hot topic in recent years has been the drive for gender balance in the workplace. According to StratExl, a management development firm, “Achieving gender equality is important for workplaces not only because it is ‘fair’ and ‘the right thing to do,’ but because it is also directly linked to a country’s overall economic performance and therefore growth.” Scaling this down from the country to company level, this shift can be difficult in tree care and other male-dominated trades for key reasons, including overt and unconscious gender bias, as well as outdated recruiting and retention practices.

They Might Be Monkeys crew members include, from left, Candace Matthews, Layla Prestwood, Judith Menzl, Zach Anthony and Eddie Gorostieta.

Many marketing-research and advertising dollars are dedicated to engaging with and recruiting men instead of women to the trades, so it’s natural that women are unaware of the viable career paths and opportunities for growth. Further, historically male-dominated hiring practices have resulted in human-resources systems and policies that must evolve to ensure the workplace is fair, equitable and safe for all employees. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff can result in a larger candidate pool, lower staff turnover and improved team communication and synergy.

Layla Prestwood lets a piece fly. “Working aloft can be scary. When I’m feeling anxious or nervous, I need someone on the ground who is calm and can offer support and walk me through things.”

Synergistic team dynamic

Highly synergistic teams rely on team members acting as multipliers rather than additions. What does this mean? Simply put, leveraging the strengths each person brings to the team is the best way to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to do what they do best to reach a common goal.

Judith Menzl and Nevic Donnelly pose for a photo on a job site.

“Nevic has the ability to spot strengths and leverage them, which is unique. In the industry, some managers approach hiring from the perspective of physical strength and knowing the work, and those new hires might come in with competitive motivations that could negatively impact the team dynamic,” suggests Swindle. “When we shifted our focus to consider candidates’ interest in tree work, our confidence that they can learn and do the work and will also bring something new and valuable to the crew dynamic, we uncovered a new pool of candidates. It turned out that a lot of those candidates were women.”

Another important element of synergistic teams is the ability to communicate effectively. This is not to say that the independent, strong and silent type cannot or will not adapt, but in a safety-focused environment, communication is a key part of successfully working together. “When we’re training new people, we try to slow down and talk through everything,” says Prestwood. “Working aloft can be scary. When I’m feeling anxious or nervous, I need someone on the ground who is calm and can offer support and walk me through things. I think that is something that needs to be communicated really well.”

“I think a woman’s style of communication plays out here a bit in some ways, including that women do tend to communicate more frequently,” suggests Menzl. “We’ve all picked up on what we think is a good communication style with each other individually and as a crew, and I think the women here have contributed to that.” As it turns out, the damaging stereotype that women talk too much is not completely unfounded. Scientific research has indicated that women are generally accepted as better communicators than men, and that women are highly capable of communicating powerfully and prolifically – or, with abundance.

1 Comment

  1. phenomenal article and as an owner of a tree company with one female on the crew, I cannot say enough how proud I am of her and the progress she made professionally and personally. She is dedicated, eager to learn, reliable and so much more. One of our customers recently referred to her as a “beast” and she continues to increase her value by the day.

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