In the last few years, the issue of Utility Vegetation Management (UVM) workforce management has been amplified, but today, it is ever-growing challenge facing the UVM industry across North America. For example, it was one of the key topics at the 2019 Trees & Utilities Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While this issue has primarily been focused around qualified utility line clearance tree workers, it has also equally impacted skilled utility vegetation management arborists.
We have continuing evidence that the UVM industry has an ongoing challenge with workforce attraction and retention. To obtain a baseline of “why?” we completed a survey of tree contract employees from 27 UVM companies across all North American regions. The following are the three key questions we asked and the summarized responses to help map out next steps and direction.
Question 1: What are the most common reasons employees are leaving your company or the industry?
- Key takeaways:
- Competition on wages (primarily other work in the trades)
- Work-life balance
Question 2: How important are the following actions utilities can take to stabilize your workforce and reduce attrition?
- Key takeaways:
- Reasonable cost-of-living increases
- Multi-year contracts
Question 3: What is the ideal contract length?
- Key takeaways:
- Contract length (aligns with stability)
- Length was tied between three and four years.
Launching a Task Force
Armed with this information and ongoing consistent communications from senior leaders across the industry, the UAA launched a Workforce Retention Taskforce to better understand the issues faced by UVM line clearance contractors and map out next steps to “move the needle” with this historical industry challenge. If this is any indicator, 80-plus industry peers and colleagues (both utility and contractor senior leaders) resoundingly agreed to participate with the effort.
The task force quickly identified and prioritized the importance of several items such as partnering with schools to attract potential future UVM employees. One key element of success is educating teachers of programs at both high schools and technical institutions. Also, developed BMPs that are actionable and scalable across the industry will be shared widely.
Out west (specifically California), Senate Bill (SB247) (Section 2) signed by Governor Gavin Newsome was an “11th hour” stroke of the pen to align three UVM qualified line clearance tree workers positions wages and benefits to those if the apprentice electric utility linemen.
- Requires utilities to invest more in training and wages for the IBEW crews who clear trees around power lines and perform fire mitigation work while also holding those utilities to a higher standard of accountability.
- Establishes a line clearance tree trimmer training and certification program so each tree trimmer gets the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.
- Ensures that line clearance tree trimmers are paid fairly, with wages comparable to that of a first-step apprentice lineman. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, wages increased more than $10 per hour, amounting to raises upwards of 40% for most of our tree trimmer members.
- Holds investor-owned utilities accountable by having Cal-FIRE perform the post-work inspections of all line clearance work.
Creating a Training Program
Finally, the Professional Utility Vegetation Management (PUVM) program was created to address the workforce “retain and train” component with current field staff level supervision and managers and utility organization entry-level management personnel. This program is targeted to current UVM personnel like tree contractors, PI consultants and utility personnel to elevate and enhance UVM supervision and management teams across all organizations.
The curriculum development began in 2014, and the program includes six college-level, non-credit courses, which are offered online over 24 months. Two classes were first piloted at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Twenty graduates now qualify to apply for the industry’s professional UVM certification, which is in development. A California investor owned utility just hired one graduate, and the program also migrated to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which had its first class in April 2020.
To learn more and register, visit https://www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap/fedi/Pages/Utility-Vegetation-Management.aspx.