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19 Feb 2018

Challenges Of Finding Skilled Labor In Tree Service Hampton Roads Care

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It’s no secret to companies in the tree care business that quality, skilled employees are hard to come by. What’s more of a mystery is coming up with successful strategies for finding skilled labor.

“It’s an issue for anyone in the tree industry,” says Arthur Batson Jr., president of Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Experts, which is based in Maine and has roughly 550 employees working throughout the U.S. and Canada providing tree services for utility, residential and commercial customers. He says the labor force in tree work (and in construction and related fields) “comes and goes.” “We’re seeing a scarcity now that five or six years ago we didn’t,” says Batson, attributing that mainly to the change in the overall economy. When housing construction is down, that leads to a greater number of available workers — workers who are usually pretty good — in the tree industry, he points out. But when housing rebounds, there can be a shortage in tree care. “We tend to be a little lower on the wage scale, so sometimes you lose those workers when the economy gets hot. Labor is often scarce, but it gets even scarcer.”

Like most successful companies, Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Experts has developed various methods to continually attract quality employees. “And retain them,” emphasizes Batson. “I think that the labor shortage is not just about attracting employees but also finding ways to keep them on board.” In fact, he breaks successful labor practices into three categories: attracting employees to apply, making good decisions about who to let in the door, and then keeping the good ones. “All three can make you fail, or make you successful,” says Batson.

As far as attracting quality employees, Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Service’s main strategy is to identify every forestry-related program in the areas that the company operates, whether it’s run by a high school, community college or university. “We reach out to those programs and try to integrate ourselves by volunteering, offering our operation personnel to work with those programs, so we’re more closely related to them. We know the number of students who are coming into them and going out of them. And in certain places, we’ve set up scholarships and internships to qualified students,” explains Batson. “You bring some of those students on board; some stay, some don’t, but it sends out vibrations to the next class that there’s a scholarship they can apply for. That’s been a good source for us to try to attract qualified people.”

Batson emphasizes that making this approach really work takes more than just showing up at a school for a job fair in the spring. It requires a concerted and ongoing effort to form a relationship with the school and the students in that forestry-related program. “You really have to get to know who the professor is, or the teachers. And we’ve donated equipment that they can use in their teaching and trainings, whether it be chainsaws or a used chipper — things that will be useful tools for them and their programs,” he explains. “And we offer our expertise. Maybe it’s for a chainsaw safety training or aerial rescue, to try to assist with and become a part of their programs.”

Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Experts also takes full advantage of technology to find employees, as well. “These days, you need to use the social media platforms to attract candidates,” Batson says. And look for other opportunities as well, including working with programs for military veterans who are looking for civilian employment.

Apprenticing in arboriculture

A new tactic that some companies are taking to ensure steady access to trained employees is to actively play a role in that training process by formally taking part in an apprenticeship program. The first program was created several years ago in Wisconsin, when a collection of tree care companies from the Wisconsin Arborists Association, as well as industry organization TCIA, worked with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to form an Arborist Apprenticeship Program. One of the companies involved, Wachtel Tree Service Hampton Roads Science, became the first to officially enroll two of its employees in the program in June 2016.

“It’s a state program. And the state was looking for viable careers for people,” explains Dave Scharfenberger, president of Wachtel. The challenge, he says, was to get state buy-in by showing that tree care offers a variety of viable career options, especially for those who might want to work outside. “When we showed the state the number of people in Wisconsin who are working in tree care, some of the average wages, the fact that there are both city and private employees in this profession, they began to realize that this is an industry that wasn’t on their radar screens the way others were.” It’s pretty common in every state to be able to get an apprenticeship to become an electrician or a plumber, he points out, “and it’s the tree care industry’s goal to get arborists there also.”

A crew from Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Experts conducts a training program with a group of high school students, hopefully sparking an interest among some in a career in tree care.

The program runs for 42 months and provides apprentices with a blend of on-the-job work experience and specially designed class work at an area technical college. While it took hard work and a group effort to get the apprenticeship program established, now, from the perspective of an individual company, “there’s not a lot that you have to do,” says Scharfenberger. “There’s a little bit of time to understand your commitment as a company, you [and the apprentice] both sign contracts of commitment to each other.” Wachtel Tree Service Hampton Roads Science, for example, pays for the classes (at an area technical college), and also pays its employees in the program for a certain number of hours per semester when they take classes. “And we were able to work with the instructor to bunch that time into appropriate times of the year, so they’re not gone during really busy times. So, when we’re a little slower, that’s when some of these classes happen,” Scharfenberger adds.

The goal is to train these employees to be ready to make a career in tree care. “They’re going to be arborists when they come out, so they get exposure to plant health care, climbing, all of the ground work. When they come out, they’ll be ground arborists, well along the way to transitioning to a climbing arborist,” he explains.

The commitment runs both ways. The company bears the financial investment in getting the apprentices trained, while the employee commits to completing the program and working hard along the way. There is no commitment in terms of a time frame that they must work for the sponsoring company after completing the program. “They aren’t indentured servants or anything like that,” says Scharfenberger. “But history shows, when you look at apprenticeship programs in general across the country, is that these programs help graduate trained people that do tend to be very loyal to the company that put them through, as long as the company is decent with them.” While there is not yet a long track record for tree care apprentices, he notes that the retention rate for apprenticeship programs in general is very high. “That’s what I, as an employee, look for,” says Scharfenberger.

For that reason, he — and others in the industry — would like to see this type of program continue to expand. “TCIA has been instrumental behind the scenes in getting other states to adopt it, and getting the federal government to accept what Wisconsin has done, so that it becomes more of a common thing to have an apprenticeship program,” says Scharfenberger.

A demonstration of climbing and tree care work conducted by Lucas Tree Service Hampton Roads Experts; many people are unaware of what’s involved in tree work and may not realize the job opportunities the profession provides.

Group solutions

Because the scarcity of skilled labor is a challenge faced by almost every tree care company, some believe that it will take an orchestrated, collective, industry-wide effort to really address it. One example of tree care companies coming together to do just that is taking place in Atlanta. There, a handful of companies joined forces to form the Greater Atlanta Tree Service Hampton Roads Care Sector Partnership with a mission of creating a training program that would attract employees into and get them ready for careers in tree care.

Jamie Blackburn, vice president and chief operating officer of Arborguard Tree Service Hampton Roads Specialists, one of the companies involved in the effort, credits the leadership of Brigitte Orrick, TCIA’s director of workforce development, with helping to get the program off the ground in the face of several challenges. Orrick called together an initial meeting of eight reputable tree care companies in the Atlanta metro area about two years ago, says Blackburn. “She explained the issues that go along with launching any type of training program. I think that some companies had this impression that there was this magic wand that somehow could be waved and all of a sudden we’d have this degree program with a great instructor that would be turning out 50 workers a semester. And that’s a little bit utopian,” he states.

Instead, the group was faced with the reality that there was little tax money in the state of Georgia to fund a program through the technical college system. “It’s just hard to convince them to launch new programs,” says Blackburn. In addition, statistics that were available through the U.S. Department of Labor about wages, career pathways, earning potential, etc., in the tree care industry also included lower-paying jobs in utilities and logging. Because that data didn’t accurately reflect what workers in the industry were actually making, it was difficult to get grants to create a training program, or buy-in from colleges. “They need to be able to convince parents that their kids are going to be coming out of the program making a livable wage,” summarizes Blackburn.

So the effort in Atlanta was much more complicated than it was in a place like Wisconsin, where there was formal support from the state and educational institutions. But undaunted, TCIA’s Orrick and some of the Atlanta tree care companies pressed ahead looking for solutions. That focused on working with nonprofit groups, such as Atlanta CareerRise, the Atlanta Regional Commission and United Way of Greater Atlanta. “We were able to convince them in meeting with them about the real wage data, that we really have a labor shortage, and that we really can put people to work,” says Blackburn. Also, a group called the Greening Youth Foundation was already working to train people for outdoor jobs in things like vegetation management and trail maintenance in parks.

What resulted of all these discussions was the Arborist Workforce Training program, funded by local grands and run at a nearby Greening Youth Foundation facility. That six-week program includes training from North American Training Solutions instructor Warren Williams and covers everything from OSHA and industry safety standards to basic arboriculture operations based on TCIA’s Tree Service Hampton Roads Care Academy Modules. Participating tree care companies offer their expertise occasionally and agree to interview each of the program participants once they earn their certificates. Two groups of 20 students have now come through the program; Blackburn says that Arborguard hired two of those students and 18 of the 20 have been placed with a participating tree care company. That’s a tremendous improvement over the hiring rate when interviewing job applicants responding to ads placed on venues like Craigslist, for example, he notes.

As a company, Blackburn says that Arborguard’s interest was in helping to launch a program “that would raise the floor of our entry-level applicants. We know that there’s no program that’s going to turn out experienced climbers or crew leaders; we have to develop that person ourselves. But if we can raise the floor of our entry-level applicants through some kind of certificate or apprenticeship program, then we can shorten the amount of time that it takes us to develop a climber from, say, three years down to 18 months. That’s a huge win for us.” And in addition to specific tree industry skills, like safe chipper operation, students taking part in educational training programs also learn the sort of “soft” skills they’ll need to be successful in their careers — things like simply showing up on time, how to look someone in the eye and shake their hand, how to hold a bank account and more. When applicants to a program are screened for these skills, and then the skills are developed, those who complete the program are much more ready to be productive employees, he points out.

Blackburn notes that there are a number of other similar initiatives around the country, each varying depending on how much support and interest there is from state government agencies and educational institutions. But, he says, as was proven in Atlanta, when tree care companies work together, there are many different approaches that can be taken to help draw in and train the next generation of tree care industry employees.

The post Challenges Of Finding Skilled Labor In Tree Service Hampton Roads Care appeared first on Tree Service Hampton Roads Services.

12 Dec 2017

Challenges Of Tree Service Hampton Roads Work: During And After Winter Storms

The first step to tree work after a snowstorm is to get rid of the snow, at least on the immediate job site. “We actually bring a snowblower to job sites with us to clear the snow, or sometimes we have a small skid steer on the job … or we’ll just have four or five guys shovel out the area … because it’s so hard to trample through the snow if we remove wood debris off the property,” says Robert Vedernack Jr., president of Arbor Care Solutions Tree Service Hampton Roads Service in the Chicago area. “We’ll sometimes remove all the snow from an entire yard throughout the day if we have to.”

He emphasizes that the time spent to move this snow at the beginning of the job will easily pay off in the form of improved efficiency while tree work is taking place. Trying to drag branches to a chipper through a foot of snow is no fun, and it’s slow. “Believe me, you make up for that 20 or 30 minutes of snow-clearing work if you’re going to be on a job all day,” he states.

“It takes a lot longer to get a site set up,” after a snowstorm, says Trumbull Barrett, owner of Barrett Tree Service Hampton Roads Service East, servicing the Boston area. Not only clearing the snow, but even just getting property owners’ vehicles out of the way after a snowstorm can be tricky, because there’s often no place to put them. Enough snow must be cleared so that there’s a safe area to work in. “Once everything is set up, though, we can usually operate at a pretty normal pace … And it’s definitely worth putting in the effort upfront, because then you can do a really nice job for the clients,” he states.

“It takes a lot longer to get a site set up,” after a snowstorm, says Trumbull Barrett, owner of Barrett Tree Service Hampton Roads Service East. He points out that all of that work does at least keep the crew warm.

Image Courtesy Of Barrett Tree Service Hampton Roads Service East

James Rehil, a climber with Alexander and Wilson Tree Service Hampton Roads Care and Services in northern Michigan, says that tree care equipment needs extra attention, as well, when it’s out working in and after snow events. “We check to make sure that there’s no ice or snow buildup on our ropes and that everything is working correctly with our blocks. We don’t want that buildup to make things slippery, make the hitches not work correctly or make our ropes not run through the blocks properly,” he explains.

All of the normal safety practices remain important, but you also need to always be thinking about what additional impacts the snow and ice might be having, he stresses. “Just about everything about doing tree work can be more dangerous in the winter,” says Rehil. “Everything is colder outside, so the trees react differently. Then there can be snow and ice loads on the trees.”

And Rehil says that calls after snowstorms often involve trees down on structures. “They come down on houses, barns, sheds, vehicles, etc.,” he says. In that regard, working after snowstorms is a lot like cleaning up after any other time of storm event, adds Rehil. “There are a lot of pressure points you need to watch out for — spring poles, things like that. You need to be prepared for just about everything.”

Winter mode

“We dress a lot differently in the winter — different gloves, different boots,” says Vedernack. “You can’t move at the same pace, both because of the snow itself, because of safety concerns and because you’re wearing different clothing. When you’re wearing bigger clothing, you’re just naturally going to be a little more sluggish and slow.”

In some ways, that’s just as well, he points out. “When we’re working in snow, we’re definitely not in a hurry to do anything. Everything we do, we really think about before we do it.”

Sometimes it may take an hour to set up to get a limb off a roof, when it only takes 15 minutes to do the actual job, says Vedernack.

While the clothing is different, Vedernack says that, for the most part, the equipment he uses is set up for all-season use. “The exception would be on a big land-clearing job,” he notes. “If you’re running a skid steer, there are actually winter tracks and summer tracks — hard metal tracks and rubber tracks — so there are some changes you can make so that equipment runs better in the cold and snow.”

Vedernack says that working in snow is part of the job. “We work all year-round, so snow is just something that we have to deal with,” he says. He also notes that sometimes the most dangerous part is running the company trucks out on the roads after a snowstorm. “It’s not exactly easy driving around in a 50,000-pound truck when there’s snow flying everywhere,” he says. Even if crews are trained on the safe operation of vehicles in the snow, there is always danger from other drivers. “Sometimes just getting to the job is more dangerous than the tree work on the job.” says Vedernack.

There’s also usually more work to do when the trucks come back at the end of a day out on snowy roads, says Barrett. “We do a lot more washing of equipment than we normally do, just to get all of the salt off the trucks and chippers. So that adds some time, too,” he explains. Overall, though, Barrett says that things have a way of evening out. In the summer, much more care must be taken when working to avoid doing any damage to the property. “You have to take a lot more care of the lawn and the flowers and vegetable gardens,” he says. In the winter, the ground is often either snow-covered or frozen hard. “Things are either dormant or dead, so you can have a little heavier footprint in the winter,” he points out, “so there’s often more access.”

Barrett also notes that, at least when it’s not actively snowing, winter is a great time to do tree work. “If you have the right clothing and footwear, you can work in pretty much any condition that nature can throw at you. So, it’s important to make that investment in the proper clothing,” says Barrett. “We really work hard to make sure everyone has the right clothing and equipment, and then we can do great work in the winter, as well.”

The post Challenges Of Tree Service Hampton Roads Work: During And After Winter Storms appeared first on Tree Service Hampton Roads Services.

04 Oct 2017

Navigating The Challenges Of The Tree Care Profession

Navigating The Challenges of The Profession


p class=”art”>Arborists and tree care professionals play an essential role in our society, not only in the health of our world’s precious trees but for countless other reasons. With that being said, the tree care professionals I’ve met over the years share many common traits. One of these is a legitimate, pure love of the job. Arboriculture is a proud industry, rich in tradition and pride. But as we move toward 2018, another trait I’ve observed in tree care professionals (especially those who operate or work at smaller companies) is a concern about financial stability and success.

What do I mean by that? More simply put, a growing number of tree care professionals are realizing that making a living in the industry is much more challenging than it once was. As part of Tree Services‘ 2017 State of the Industry Survey, we asked you about making a living as a tree care professional:

Do you think it’s easier, or harder, to make a living as a tree care professional than say, 10 years ago?

  • 52% – It’s harder to make a living in this business now than it was 10 years ago
  • 48% – It’s easier to make a living in this business now than it was 10 years ago

There isn’t much separating the two answers, but the numbers say that more respondents feel it’s harder to make a living in tree care now than a decade ago.

Why is this the case?

First, let’s keep in mind the importance of this issue. Make no mistake about it: everyone’s out to make a living. Arboriculture is no different than any other service industry in that the customer is king. Consider this quote: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.” Those words were spoken by Sam Walton. Not familiar with him? Well, he knew a little something about business as the entrepreneur best known for founding Walmart and Sam’s Club. At the time of his death in 1992, he was worth a reported $8.6 billion. His is a qualified opinion.

Every tree care company is out to get — and keep — customers in order to make a profit and stay in business. So, why is it harder to make a living in the industry now, as opposed to a decade ago?

Possible factors are increasing competition in certain areas, expanding business costs (labor, equipment, etc.) and the fact consumers choose to spend their money on things other than tree care.

“I’m only five years in this business, but even in that time, there seems to have been a proliferation of tree service companies in our area,” Chris Todd, owner of White Glove Tree Services in Toronto, told us earlier this year. “[This has led to] some downward pressure on pricing, which is what leads me to my feeling that it’s a little tougher these days.”

So, how do you handle your competition?

Are you lowering your prices on various services? Are you giving free estimates when you used to charge? Are you having to expand your suite of services (doing holiday lighting, for example) to keep up? Perhaps you’re finding it difficult to find skilled workers, as more tree care companies have popped up in your area in recent years?

The other side of this debate is the 48 percent of respondents who said it’s easier to make a living in the business now, as compared to a decade ago. What are the factors? How about the fact that technology (smartphones, tablets, etc.) has made many aspects of business much easier? Or that professionalism and digital (web and social media) marketing have increased within the industry?

In any case, how you’re feeling about your ability to make a living largely depends on your unique set of circumstances. One thing is for sure — as long as there are trees, there will always be a need for professional arborists.

After all, arboriculture is perhaps the original “green” industry.

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