As tricky as trees can be to manage, diagnose, maintain, treat, prune and remove, they may be the easiest part of being in the tree care business. It’s things like ever-changing regulations, billing and bookkeeping, equipment purchases and other aspects of running a business-the things they don’t teach you in forestry or horticulture school, and which are rarely covered in tree care workshops-that often prove the most challenging. Chances are good that employee management is at the top of this list. Building the right workforce and keeping them motivated is critical to the success of any company, and it’s a job that starts with finding the right employees.

Finding the right fit

“I am always hiring — I’m always working on that,” says Dave Scharfenberger, president of Wachtel Tree Science, a full-service tree care company in Wisconsin. “I try to constantly stay in touch with people and different sources at educational institutions and just out in the profession. You never know where the right person is going to come from.” Scharfenberger says that, just as job seekers are told, “It’s not what you known, but who you know,” the same is true when it comes to finding employees. “You want to be one of those people who is known,” he states.

Rather than simply putting ads in the paper, he does a lot of his recruiting at area technical schools, as well as two and four-year colleges. “We try to always have one or two students from those programs work with us during the summer, so hopefully they will want to work with us in the future, and go back to their school and say good things about our company,” explains Scharfenberger.

Wachtel has a total of 40 employees, including office and sales staff, and about 95 percent have a degree, most in arboriculture. “I’ve hired people with degrees in other areas, because it at least shows that they’ve got the wherewithal to get through school,” he notes. This emphasis on education may not be the norm throughout the industry, he admits, but it’s proven to work for his company.

But there’s more to it than looking for a diploma. “Through the interview process, you try to see if that person is going to be a good fit or not,” he says. “If you get the right person coming in with the right attitude, it makes everything so much easier.” Scharfenberger recommends making the job interview process a true conversation, and asking open-ended questions in order to help draw out the applicant’s personality and experiences.

Photo: Wachtel Tree Science.

Photo: Wachtel Tree Science.

“My goal is to find someone who will grow and develop here, and once they are here, it is my goal, and the goal of my staff, to keep them engaged and keep them challenged so they don’t go look for another job,” says Dave Scharfenberger. In part, that means continually teaching employees new skills and pushing them to become certified.

“I don’t really even ask many questions about tree work, or try to assess their tree knowledge when I’m talking with a graduate of a tree program,” he explains. “All of my questions revolve around: ‘Give me an example of a difficult boss you’ve had to work for.’ Or, even if it was when working at McDonald’s, ‘Tell me a story about a customer from hell.’ That way you can tell how they handle things, whether they can talk about these issues in a logical, organized manner; if they talk about their blame in issues, or whether past problems were all the boss’ fault.”

The goal isn’t to try to trick people, but to get a good discussion going to see if an applicant would be a good fit with how the company operates. “Not everybody is right,” he states. “That doesn’t mean they are bad, or that we’re bad. It just means they belong somewhere else.”

Oftentimes, the potential employee’s goal is simply to be hired, but Scharfenberger says he wants people who feel that Wachtel Tree Science is the right place for them to pursue their career. “A career is very different than a job,” he points out. “My goal is to find someone who will grow and develop here, and once they are here, it is my goal, and the goal of my staff, to keep them engaged and keep them challenged, so they don’t go look for another job.”

Keeping employees engaged

For Scharfenberger, a big part of keeping employees engaged and motivated is to continually support their opportunities for learning. “We really push people to get certified. We have 26 certified arborists and three Board Certified Master Arborists,” he notes. In addition, there are multiple specialty certifications among the group. In fact, the only tree care workers who aren’t certified are those who have been with the company for less than a year and still need to put in time in the industry.

Wachtel Tree Science also pays for employees to take classes at a local two-year technical college (as long as they get a passing grade), and operates an extensive in-house training program to keep employees current. The company has even devised a system that defines different levels of knowledge within the tree care profession, and then breaks each of those levels down into the necessary skills — as many as 15 or 30 different skills in each area — needed to master it.

Wachtel Tree Science uses a comprehensive, employee-developed training program to help keep its workers informed and engaged. Photo: Wachtel Tree Science.

Wachtel Tree Science uses a comprehensive, employee-developed training program to help keep its workers informed and engaged. Photo: Wachtel Tree Science.

“Someone has to be shown a skill, and they have to demonstrate it, and then they have to show proficiency in it to two different crew leaders, then they can check off that skill,” Scharfenberger explains. A large tracking board hangs on the wall at the company office with everyone’s name on it so employees can easily see the different tasks and levels they still need to complete. “If it looks like someone isn’t progressing, I can grab their folder and talk with their mentor, because it’s really the mentor’s responsibility. And this system is also meant to teach the mentors new skills in dealing with people in small steps,” he adds.

As employees check off different skills and levels, they can see themselves climbing a ladder to success, and it helps them visualize advancing within the company, rather than being locked into a certain role or level, says Scharfenberger.

Some areas of the training program are technical in nature, but others relating to leadership and teamwork have also been built in. “We want our people to be leaders, so we thought, ‘We’d better start talking about leadership right from the beginning,'” he explains. In fact, he notes, the entire training program was really put together by employees, rather than by Scharfenberger or his business partner, Jeff Wilson. “That’s a way we’ve tried to move things down the organizational chart and having the crews more involved. We’ve got smart, educated people, so we try to let them get involved and create systems,” he explains.

All of this requires a lot of work for both employee and employer. “We aim high, and we set a high standard,” summarizes Scharfenberger. “That challenges our employees more. Out on the job they don’t just say, ‘I don’t know, we’ll get the sales arborist involved.’ They can problem solve a lot of things and make things happen.” Obviously, it costs more to employ people with a degree and certifications, and to give them comprehensive training, but that investment pays dividends, he says: “There are benefits as far as decision-making and attitude; because it is their career, our employees approach life differently.” And clients appreciate the difference that makes on the job, Scharfenberger adds.

Sharing knowledge and team building

Newer employees at Wachtel aren’t just thrown onto a crew and sent out into the field. Instead, they’re given a one-day training program and then matched up with a mentor within the company, whom they work with for one to two weeks. “Everyone has their own speed,” Scharfenberger points out, and this type of introduction lets experienced crew leaders bring new hires along at a speed that works for them. It also gives the mentor a chance to take on a leadership role, which goes back to the mission of continually challenging employees and keeping them engaged, he notes.

Once an employee has been through this orientation phase, they are capable of moving around to different crews and tasks within the company. In fact, all employees at Wachtel move around, and that’s by design. “A lot of companies have set crews, but we don’t,” explains Scharfenberger. “We move our people around.” This is done for several reasons: first, he’s heard from employees that they prefer to switch things around and work with different people in the company rather than the same group for weeks at a time. “So we rotate people. Some people ask me, ‘Well, how does a crew get a rhythm?’ But we expect the whole company to have that rhythm,” says Scharfenberger.

He’s also found that mixing employees together on different teams also helps to spread new skills throughout the company. “For example, everyone climbs a little differently. So if someone says they’re having a hard time learning a particular climbing technique, we’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t you spend a few days working with Ryan over there, maybe he can teach you a little different way that’s going to work better for you.’ And that forces people to try doing things in different ways,” he explains. “With the number of employees we have, they’re always learning new things and bring that into the company, and that lets us help keep things fresh.”

Keeping employees motivated also takes the form of fun company get-togethers. “We do a summer picnic and a holiday party, and three or four times throughout the year we’ll have informal cookouts after work, where I’ll cook some burgers and brats and we’ll have some beer … we try to keep people connected,” Scharfenberger explains. Whether it’s these small gatherings, the emphasis on training and certification, or providing regular opportunities for leadership, the overall goal is always to keep employees motivated and engaged, and working as a team. He concludes: “I’m sure there’s always more we can do, but we really try to make sure that everyone has an important place and is making an impact, whether they’re leading a department or dragging brush on a crew, they can help to make improvements and can make a difference in the company.”