Companies partner to educate employees

Photos Courtesy of Vermeer.
After three days of assessment and classroom instruction, TechReach students go into the field for introduction to skills such as roping and rigging.

If someone offered you the opportunity to interview potential ground workers who have been prescreened and given introductory training, would you take advantage of it? Believe it or not, some industry heavy hitters have teamed up to create a unique recruitment and training program that does just that.

Vermeer Corporation (www.vermeer.com) has partnered with employment staffing company Manpower, Inc. (www.manpower.com) to create Tree Care TechReach (www.treecaretechreach.com). These companies, with support from ArborMaster Training, Inc. (www.arbormaster.com), www.bigtimejobs.com, Husqvarna (www.husqvarna.com) and SherrillTree (www.sherrilltree.com) are helping solve one of the tree industry’s greatest challenges.

TechReach instructors demonstrate knot tying.

Scope of the problem

There’s no doubt that staffing tree care companies is challenging. Vermeer researched the scope of the problem and why it persists, and found that the typical firm experiences 25 percent turnover annually, with half of those losses in ground person positions. That translates into a need for up to 30,000 ground workers each year.

The demand for tree services and ground people continues to grow for many reasons. With about 80 percent of the American population living in or near metropolitan areas, the need for urban forest management is increasing. When construction is booming, business in the tree services field multiplies. Scientists confirm that the incidence of hurricanes has reached record levels, leading to intense cleanup requirements, as well as a focus on preventative trimming and right-of-way maintenance. Lastly, imported pests and diseases mandate increased treatment and management needs.

Getting started

Mark Rieckhoff, environmental segment manager with Vermeer, says the concept for Tree Care TechReach emerged from his company’s client interactions. Its market-based strategy department works with customers to identify needs, including those beyond equipment requirements, and provide solutions when possible.

“We saw needs in the areas of training and employee retention and thought we could help,” Rieckhoff adds.

During 2004 and 2005, Vermeer conducted research throughout the industry. Of those interviewed, 54 percent said that recruitment and retention of qualified tree care workers, specifically ground persons and tree climbers, was one of their toughest business obstacles. Only the cost of insurance and workers’ compensation ranked as more significant challenges. Further study indicated that 82 percent of employee needs in the tree care industry are for the tree climber and ground person positions.

“When Vermeer came to us with this concept, we were big on it,” says Ken Palmer, principal at ArborMaster, which has been involved in workforce development for 14 years. “It makes a lot of sense; this is one of lots of different education and training things we’re involved in to better the industry.”

While Vermeer, ArborMaster and their industry peers had the resources to offer education and training to potential tree care workers, especially the highly sought after ground persons, the group lacked expertise in soliciting and evaluating candidates. That’s where Manpower came in. The well-known staffing firm brought to the table proven techniques for employee recruitment, assessment and placement. Manpower also helped facilitate the possibility of obtaining funding for training through government agencies.

Vermeer supplies equipment and instructors for TechReach training.

Vermeer, ArborMaster and Manpower toiled for about two years to identify core competencies and employer objectives for developing a comprehensive recruitment, training and placement program. They focused on methods to help supply the industry with screened job candidates who have a general understanding of the business, while also assisting unemployed and underemployed persons, including military veterans, with viable career paths. Additional goals included helping to make tree care safer for both workers and consumers. The Tree Care TechReach program aids tree care firms in managing overall labor costs by reducing training and turnover expenses.

By early 2007, Tree Care TechReach was ready for a trial run.

How it works

Manpower conducts preemployment assessments using its proprietary selection processes including behavioral and industry evaluations, interviews and preemployment screenings. The comprehensive assessment helps to ensure that candidates are well-suited for the program, aiding in the placement and retention processes.

The recruits attend a 40-hour training program consisting of classroom instruction and hands-on practice. The course begins with work site safety and an introduction to the industry. Participants receive basic training with hand tools, power tools, stump cutters and brush chippers in a “real life” setting, such as a park. Rope and knot tying, rigging, basic pruning and tree felling procedures are also discussed. Personal protective equipment, work site preparation and cleanup and emergency preparedness are included in the weeklong training. Instruction in both English and Spanish is available. On the last day of the program, tree service firms visit the training site to conduct interviews.

“After the one week, they have [learned the] basics and are more qualified than [an applicant] off the street,” Rieckhoff says, while stressing that Tree Care TechReach participants cannot be considered to be fully trained.

Public-private partners, including government job training funds, typically cover costs. There are no fees for participants, and there is little to no cost to tree care companies in most instances.

Results

Training sessions have since been conducted in the Omaha, Neb., and Charlotte, N.C., areas, with three more in the planning stage.

“Refinements should continue due to the different segments in the industry, such as residential, commercial, utility line clearance and municipal,” Palmer says. “In the future, I want to see disaster training, especially for municipal workers.”

Rieckhoff says classes must be limited to about a dozen students so that each participant receives individual attention and adequate practice. Despite the prescreening, some drop out during the week, but results have generally been positive. All of the Charlotte trainees have been hired.

Palmer says the program helps make workers safer and more productive. A key to success in this or any training effort is buy-in by all managers and employees, he adds. His firm’s consultations help bridge the gap between decision-makers’ expectations and the reality of job site conditions.

Getting involved

Classes are formed on an as-needed basis. When Tree Care TechReach coordinators receive requests from several firms in one area, a session is planned. Rieckhoff says that tree care companies can request several candidates and expect to meet potential workers at the conclusion of the training week.

“If you ask for three [applicants], you will be able to interview three or more who have rudimentary skills,” Rieckhoff says.

Vermeer enlists the help of its local Manpower office to get the appropriate branch office involved. Manpower works with government agencies to secure support. Rieckhoff says navigating those governmental channels can be challenging, as each state has its own system and allocates funds by different methods.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.