Training is often discussed and debated in every profession and industry, and the tree care profession is no different. Unfortunately for tree folk, only a few other industries or professions are as potentially dangerous and deadly as tree work, particularly when training is neglected or considered unnecessary or even a waste of valuable production time. In addition, there can be a misconception of what a training program is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.
A simplistic example might be the case of Johnny B. O’Doughnuts’ first day on the job in which he is instructed to watch another crew member feed brush into the chipper for five minutes, and then told to get to work feeding the chipper. This is not training. It can’t even be considered basic familiarization with a task, and could result in Johnny losing some of his pieces and parts. Training is important in any task, regardless of industry or application. Carried out well, it should increase efficiency, safety and productivity — but its final goal in tree care is that Johnny keeps all of his pieces and parts.
Tree care companies, crews and individual tree folk in the modern era of arboriculture have a wide variety of options for training and education, certainly many more than were available back in the day.
Formal schooling: There are high school vocational education programs available in some areas of the U.S. that focus solely on tree care, providing graduates with classroom education on tree biology and diseases in addition to valuable field training and experience with climbing, rigging and other tree industry tasks. A number of colleges and universities in North America offer two- and four-year degrees in arboriculture, along with some that offer master’s degree programs; all of them encompass a mix of classroom and field-based hands-on training.
Professional organizations: The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) offer education, training and certification programs in various tree-related subject matter for those interested in learning more about trees and their care, and those needing continuing education or an “update” to their knowledge/ skill base.
Retailers/manufacturers: A number of arborist manufacturers/retailers offer training seminars at their facilities throughout North America in which particular tree-centric subjects or equipment are explained and demonstrated, typically in a one-day session in a field or classroom setting.
Training companies: There are a number of tree industry-specific training companies in North America, along with individual trainers, who offer more extensive and in-depth tree care training courses. These typically last multiple days and are a mix of classroom instruction, demonstration and field-based hands-on practice by the students. These companies typically offer classes in locations for public enrollment or private classes at the location of the tree care company’s choosing.
In-house training: A number of tree care companies have developed their own in-house training programs for their personnel. While it requires a commitment of both time and resources, this allows the companies to ensure that their employees are trained and educated to the desired level.
The complexity and inherent hazards of most tree industry tasks show quite clearly that training and education for crews are necessary; and the development and release of new gear/techniques/equipment show that even experienced tree folk have a need for training and education. After all, if the experience in question has consisted of carrying out one task with one technique with one piece of gear/equipment for multiple years, the experience is more a matter of repetition than anything else.
The first step prior to seeking training is an assessment of the training needs. A one-day seminar or two-day field-based course on spur takedowns is not going to be that helpful to a company that primarily uses aerial lifts. Although this may seem obvious, when the subject of training comes up logic is often left behind.
Opinions should certainly be sought from crew members and leadership about what sort of training is needed, but care should be taken to walk before running. All tree folk have an idea of their personal strengths and weaknesses when it comes to work processes, but sometimes these self-evaluations may not necessarily agree with those of an outside observer. Enrolling several employees in an advanced hazard/danger tree chain saw course when their basic saw handling skills are problematic is not a good use of training resources. Training needs can often be discovered simply by an objective examination of recent injuries, accidents and production problems. If the needs are not readily evident, objective observation of crews at work will often indicate training needs.
What to look for
Training and education programs, regardless of source or organization, are complex, detailed entities consisting of various methods and techniques. Once the training needs have been established, decide what type of training would best meet the company’s needs, along with what resources are available.
If the training concern is simply a new piece of equipment the company has acquired or a new disease/insect in the area, then a one-day seminar by a manufacturer or educator with some amount of demonstration may suffice to familiarize the crew. However, training and its attendant end goal, competency, are going to require more time, energy and practice. There are a number of ways to promote competency through training, but the three basics of teaching, showing and doing are an effective place to start, and basic components that a company should look for when seeking out training.
Teaching typically takes place in a classroom- type setting, though the classroom can just as easily be the tailgate of a truck. How to use a particular technique or piece of equipment is explained, as well as why it is used. Knowing why it’s used will help participants understand when the technique or gear should or shouldn’t be used, while the how not only ensures it’s being used effectively and safely, but also when something is starting to go wrong.
Showing is the process of the instructor(s) demonstrating the technique or piece of gear to the participants in a field setting. This is done in a methodical, easily viewed fashion, typically as slowly as possible, with the instructor( s) providing dialogue on what is going on and why, and answering questions from participants. This allows the participants to see how the process or gear should work, and better understand the actions they will have to take to complete the task.
Doing is the participants’ practice time with the new technique or equipment, when each individual under the supervision or observation of an instructor begins to learn how it truly feels and works. The more time that is available for practice the better the competency outcomes will be, but additional teaching and showing can also take place at this time.
While outcomes are easily measured in the certification programs through the professional organizations or the high school/college programs, they can be more difficult to quantify in the seminar, training company or in-house options. Difficult does not mean impossible, and measuring outcomes is imperative in evaluating the effectiveness of any training scenario.
In the case of training companies, many offer some form of competency testing, which will help ensure the training has been effective, but follow-up evaluations should be done periodically to assure that bad habits have not returned.
The effectiveness of seminars can be difficult to evaluate, but having participants talk through what was learned from the seminar can reinforce the information gained and also bring up details that one participant or another may have missed. Once again, if the seminar involved reoccurring tasks, follow-up observation or evaluation can be useful and illuminating.
An in-house training program should have some form of testing and competency evaluation process as part and parcel of its design, and there should be regularly scheduled re-evaluations for all participants to monitor adherence.