Apprenticeship and the Future Workforce

By August Hoppe, President of Hoppe Tree Service and Chair of the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council

Workforce shortages and the training of new employees is not a new problem for the arboricultural industry. Meeting minutes from a National Arborist Association meeting from 70 years ago frame the issue in the same fashion as we do today. It is hard to find skilled workers for positions and retaining workers can be an even bigger challenge for many organizations, even during a pandemic.

Formal apprenticeship is a tool that other skilled trades have been using successfully for many years to recruit, train and retain their valuable employees. We are entering an exciting time within our industry as more and more employers turn to the Arborist Apprenticeship program to fulfill the needs of their workforce. 

The Wisconsin Registered Arborist Apprenticeship is a contract between the employer, employee and the State of Wisconsin. This agreement provides for a formal training program that consists of on-the-job training, skills competencies signoffs by already skilled workers and paid classroom instruction.  Wisconsin currently has two institutions providing classroom instruction: Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids and Milwaukee Area Technical College in Mequon. In our current COVID-19 environment these colleges have made adaptions such as rigorous physical precautions and online virtual courses to continue to deliver instruction with minimal interruption.

The WI Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards considers the Arborist Apprenticeship Program as one of the fastest growing and most successful start-up apprenticeships in any sector within recent memory.  The Bureau points to widespread support by the industry and energetic efforts by the program’s advisory committee to make adaptations to the program as reasons for its success.  

With apprenticeship now taking hold, the industry is now turning its sight on the creation of sustainable pre-apprenticeship programs to help reach wider audiences of prospective employees, to help create a pipeline of candidates for job placement into arboriculture and to create a stepping stone into apprenticeship. 

Pre-apprenticeship programs can be flexible in training delivery and offer new recruits a chance to see and experience tree care. A successful example of a pre-apprenticeship program has been going on for two consecutive years in the Milwaukee area. This partnership consists of the City of Milwaukee, Northcott Neighborhood House (a Milwaukee area non-profit), MATC and industry employers working together to recruit non-traditional candidates, train them and ultimately employ them in the arboricultural industry. Participants in this program receive six weeks of workforce training and then work with participating employers. There are numerous examples of graduates successfully hired into the private sector with some ultimately enrolling into the Arborist Apprenticeship program. In 2020 the program was awarded a grant from the American Forests organization to help add more resources and staff to the training program. The future goal of this program is to build on its continuing successes and find sustainable funding sources to continue to offer the program each summer. 

Workforce development continues to be a strategic goal within the industry. The Wisconsin Arborist Association has created a Workforce Development Coordinator position. One of the main responsibilities of this position will be to sit on the Arborist Advisory Committee, helping to make member nominations to the Committee and ensuring the Committee continues to be composed of a diverse group of employers. 

Recently the Wisconsin Urban Forestry Council has been working to expand the reach of workforce development with the creation of an outreach webinar geared towards increasing municipal awareness of the Arborist Apprenticeship program. This work has been largely led by The Council’s Workforce Development issue group, with the aid of DNR Urban Forestry Team Regional Coordinator Brian Wahl. 

Wisconsin has continued to be a leader in workforce development, with other states modeling their Arborist Apprenticeship programs on the Wisconsin model. Nationally the Tree Care Industry Association is working to create apprenticeship modules as resources for Arborist Apprenticeship training. 

It’s an exciting time in the world of workforce development as we make progress on these industry-old challenges of recruiting, training and retaining skilled workers.

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