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Building a Training Program

By Michael “House” Tain


The quote from General George S. Patton used in the title of this article rather graphically sums up, at the most basic level, the basic purpose of a training program — particularly in the tree care industry. While in all industries and professions there are certainly risks and dangers involved, few contain the danger to life and limb that the tree industry does, after all a software engineer who makes a mistake may see the computer system crash, while a tree crew member who makes a mistake may see an entire tree (including climber) crash. Certainly tree care training programs are intended to improve efficiency, lower costs, and produce a variety of other positive outcomes, but at its most basic it must be remembered that training saves lives.



The first step in building a training program, regardless of the size of the crew or organization, is evaluating what training is needed and what resources are available. For example, a company that uses aerial lifts almost exclusively should focus its training on aerial lifts. While this might seem obvious, it can become a problem for companies or crews who attempt, typically for cost saving, to use an existing “one size fits all” training program or module. In addition, company owners or leaders may find it valuable to have their training needs evaluated by an “outside” observer. There are certainly training companies and consultants available to do this, but even the use of another arboricultural professional who is a friend or peer can be beneficial. This prevents company leadership from being “blinded” to unsafe practices or habits that their crew members, and perhaps even themselves, have; and allows a “fresh” set of eyes to recognize and document those practices. This process need not be an evaluation in the sense that the observed crews are being tested on various skills, but rather a “fact-finding” process in which the observer is gathering information about the manner in which the crews carry out their work. The company leadership must be secure enough and open-minded enough to accept the information they might receive about their crews’ shortcomings in safety or efficiency. The information gathered can then be used to help build an appropriate training program, with emphasis placed on the required skills, techniques, or areas of emphasis. While the evaluation process applies to a company wishing to build a training program where none exists, it also readily applies to a company wishing to refine their existing training program. Perhaps there have been a number of accidents or injuries which are of concern, or the company is expanding with a number of new hires expected, in either case some form of evaluation needs to take place. A new employee needs to be evaluated for existing skills and practices — and appropriate training given — prior to being sent out on a paying job. Conversely, existing employees who have already been participants in the present training program, but have been part of a trend of accidents/injuries need to be evaluated to see what areas might need more emphasis or review.



A training program, regardless of how well built or designed, is only as good as the company’s/crew’s commitment to it. Training costs time and money, whether the company carries it out “in house” or uses outside resources; and the leadership needs to recognize that fact and still be committed to the training program. The reality is that the time and money spent on training will be reaped in dividends repaid to the organization in safer more efficient work, but that might be hard to recognize or remember after several “rain days,” a backlog of jobs building up, and impatient customers calling when the company has a scheduled training session. In the short term it is very easy for management to find reasons to put off training or reschedule it for later, but the reality is that the costs to the company will be greater in the long run through accidents, injuries, inefficiency, and lost productive time. Leaders are not the only ones who must empower the training program, the crew members themselves must also do so, as the best training program in the world will struggle without “buy-in” from the participants.



The evaluation process should have fairly clearly indicated the areas in which training is needed; and at this point the goal is to take the different topics identified and break them up into different blocks or modules that are not only manageable in size/time required, but make sense together. This is also a good time to recognize that “training” does not imply that the crew has no skills, experience, or abilities with the particular subject, but that what skills they do have may simply need some refinement or adjustment. It is also an excellent time to recognize that years of experience do not always equate to safe efficient work practices; and that every individual can benefit from training, simply for review and refreshing if nothing else. Some basic topics that may be identified through the evaluation process include ground chain saw use, aerial chain saw use, chipper operation, basic rigging, spur climbing, or aerial lift operation. Regardless of topic, the training program should be developed with an eye toward the practices that the evaluation indicated needed to be changed or instituted; and in a manner in which simple digestible steps build on each other to lead to the desired outcome or goal. The company leadership has the option of doing the training “in-house,” hiring an outside training company, or a combination of the two. An example of the “combination” method would be using a training company to train various members of the company, who would then, in turn, train the other crew members. Research has shown that companies that have a formalized training program have lower accident/injury rates, but also that companies that bring in outside trainers have even better outcomes. The option chosen will obviously be dependent on the economic realities of the organization, but the most important thing is that some form of training program be instituted and empowered.



Adult education and training is an entire topic unto itself, one that many distinguished educators and trainers have spent their whole careers developing and understanding, but there are some basic methods that can assist in building a training program. A training program can consist of many different methods, but three basic methods that have shown to be effective are lecture, demonstration, and practice.

  •  Lecture consists of explaining to the participants the “how and why” of a particular technique, typically in a classroom setting; and need not be as boring as the word “lecture” might convey. The availability and use of modern technology such as digital media and animation can make learning the “how and why” interesting and entertaining, even in a classroom setting. This component is one that is often forgotten, or deemed unimportant, in “blue collar” training programs, but to do so is a mistake. Understanding how a process works, or why a technique is effective, helps the person being trained immensely in the learning process. Not only will they be able to understand why the technique being taught is a “better way,” they will also have the ability to identify the steps in the technique and how they all work together, affecting one another for either good or ill. In short, the lecture component validates the topic or technique to the participants; and proves that it is the right or effective thing to do.
  • Demonstration is when the instructor “demonstrates” to the participants how the technique is carried out, typically in a field setting. This should be done in a methodical fashion, with each step of the technique being emphasized and demonstrated as slowly as possible, encouraging questions from the participants. This process reemphasizes to the students the “how and why” while also showing that the technique can be done in a field setting. The demonstration component gives the participants the opportunity to see first hand the topic being taught; and also the physical actions or body mechanics that carry it out.
  • Practice is when the students themselves get to work on the technique or topic to familiarize themselves with it; and is carried out under the supervision/observation of the trainer. This allows each student to “feel” and learn how the technique works, and also receive individual instruction or feedback from the trainer. This component should have a low enough instructor/trainer to student ratio that all students can be readily observed and monitored for not only effective learning, but also for safety.



Once the training program is built and being carried out, the work is not yet done. In fact, a good training program is constantly being refined and redeveloped to reflect new tools, techniques, and methods. Along with this refinement comes the need for reevaluation, both of the program and its participants. Any training program needs to have a regular reevaluation of its participants (i.e., a testing component). Obviously, participants will be checked/tested upon completing the training to assure that they have absorbed and integrated the material, but, as time passes, they will need to be reevaluated to assure that key components have not “fallen by the wayside” in their day-to-day work world.


Building a training program is not a simple undertaking; and may at first glance appear daunting to company owners and leadership who wish to implement one. But the reality is that there are a large number of resources available to assist — from both professional tree care organizations and arborist-specific training companies. The journey to a fully functioning training program will be a long one, but, as with all journeys, it starts with that first determined step. And the end of this journey will be greater efficiency, fewer accidents, and saved lives.


Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at house@houseoftain.com.



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