A quick check of arborist and urban forestry job posting sites suggests that demand might be getting well ahead of availability of tree workers. You might notice that in some cases there are multiple job openings in one workplace. Owners and managers faced with the same labour shortage conditions have taken to industry publications to vent their half-baked conclusions. The now infamous misogynistic ad circulated in TCIA Magazine (November 2021) is a bizarre and tasteless attempt to troll tree workers. The ad has not reappeared and TCIA never publicly acknowledged their decisions to run the ad.

To TCIA’s credit, several magazine issues have given editorial space to discussion of gaps in industry when it comes to treatment of workers through recruiting and retention. Granted, paying workers better, treating workers better, and taking safety seriously have been repeated in forums, at conferences, and in magazines throughout my career. While many workplaces have tried nothing (and nothing worked), others have given things a try and may have been burned in the process. The culture of a workplace is rarely static, and interventions need to be adaptive to those changing workplace conditions. For example, where a spike in employee turnover has left heavy work demand for fewer employees, the underlying causes could be just about anything under the sun. Responding to the symptoms with the same tools in every situation is guaranteed to worsen the outcomes.

Owners and managers arbitrarily controlling career advancement opportunities for existing workers could be due to structural limitations of the business model, or they may be targeted around a worker’s skill development curve along with conduct and performance. Holding back workers based on subjective measurements is a blunt tool not adapted to the labour market conditions of the 2020s, and the practice usually backfires. The existing employee sees a career path that is a moving target. Given an opportunity to find alternative employment, they are likely to leave without hesitation. Newly hired workers utilized by employers for a purpose of motivating existing underperforming employees, or for teaching lessons might have an undesired effect when the newly hired worker becomes aware that their primary purpose isn’t to fill a skills gap.

Gatekeeping is the action of restricting or controlling access. When applied to career paths it can take on many forms, and at different levels of power within a workplace. It is often kept from the attention of a group and builds via one-on-one aggressions. Most of us have contributed some form of gatekeeping even at a base level of crew leader -- doing so has long been embedded in arborist culture. What seems on the surface to be an act of discipline and care can often be felt as something very different to the recipient.

Many of us have endured harsh interventions on our own professional journeys. This could be a crew leader’s choice to help or hurt a co-worker by changing the rules of the game into a character-building lesson (e.g., the physical and mental load that a groundworker will face in managing materials). This might work out for a small number of groundworkers, but many will learn quickly that this workplace is a hostile environment. They’ll learn that the crew leader might be responsible and skilled in tree care but lacks the ability to work effectively with new workers. Leaders who lack interest in how their character shaping efforts land on other workers seems to be of low importance to many employers. If you’re convinced that adversity makes top arborist performers and insist on running every apprentice through the same gauntlet, I’m interested to know by what metrics you define success?

Choices made by leaders in private and public workplaces in their recruiting selections can send shockwaves through a workplace in a vulnerable state. Retaining workers by supporting their career growth has been frequently talked about but rarely delivered without predatory conditions attached. What looks like a progressive tree business that promises “meaningful work” and career growth opportunities in job postings might turn out to be a labyrinth for an early career arborist to navigate. Education and training career growth opportunities are often conditional on the gatekeeper’s measurement of merit. Cost recovery contracts are more frequently tied to career growth opportunities (3rd party training and credentialing) that leverage threats on early career workers that might be investigating other workplace options.

The popular belief that business growth can occur sustainably without investing in developing workers is getting harder to rationalize. The industry’s turnkey model employee is a mirage. Gatekeepers’ bias in picking winners and losers is rarely probed for effectiveness at any level in a tree care business. The talent pool is being drained and everyone in a position to do something about it is pointing at each other. Industry’s philosophy that training the model tree worker is an individual’s or some other employer’s responsibility has reached its inevitable conclusion. Gatekeeping tree worker career paths could be one behaviour to target as part of a larger strategy for improving labour stability in your workplace. Embedding immediate and continuous career development as standard practice and free of penalty to new workers is a necessary response to stop the bleeding.

The suggestion that the ideal arborist can be recruited or recreated on demand is pure fantasy, and yet industry continues to indulge in that fantasy: That no amount of turnover is too much if one more ideal arborist is out there.