Career Advancement for Consulting Utility Foresters

Career Advancement for Consulting Utility Foresters

Training + Development

By Will Porter, CN Utility Consulting

Recently CN Utility Consulting (CNUC) conducted a short survey to discover how consulting utility foresters/workplanners envision their career in the UVM industry.

The survey found that the most appealing attribute of the job for consulting utility foresters (CUFs) was working outdoors.  In fact, 79 percent of CUFs stated they really like working outdoors and the remaining 21 percent said they like working outdoors. Other aspects of the job that make the work attractive are working with trees and plants and new technologies.

On the other hand, most CUFs want to advance to a higher-level position such as consulting management, utility vegetation manager, research consultant, or utility vegetation management (UVM) specialist with an emphasis on safety and training. Many of these desired positions do not include a large amount time outdoors in comparison to the CUF position, but the leadership opportunities and financial rewards are possibly more attractive than daily outdoor work setting. Seventy one percent of employees plan to make UVM career advancements happen in the next five years. Twenty two percent would like to advance if opportunities arise, 2 percent don’t have a plan, and 5 percent don’t expect opportunities to arise. Working as a project manager, field operations manager or working for a utility company as a manager are the most sought-after career choices. As a whole, CUFs are in pursuit of challenging and rewarding leadership and managerial careers.

UVM as a Career Option for “Green Degree” Graduates

CUFs did not prepare specifically for a career in UVM. Only 24 percent of CUFs knew about UVM opportunities when they began looking for forestry jobs (see Figure 1 below). In fact, most CUFs didn’t know UVM existed until they began looking for a job. The largest percent of survey respondents, 26 percent, learned about UVM through online searches. Only 4 percent were introduced to UVM through college recruiting (see Figure 2 below).

It is surprising that most CUFs were not aware of the opportunities in UVM while they were preparing for their careers. Sixty five percent of survey respondents reported they have a Bachelor’s degree or a higher degree in a green field. Yet, 76 percent of CUFs either didn’t know UVM jobs existed, or they only had a partial knowledge of opportunities in the industry (see Figure 1).  This disparity between CUFs with “green degrees” and pre-knowledge of the UVM industry is unexpected, since many applied science degrees, such as forestry, offer curriculums that prepare students for jobs, and job opportunities are communicated to students before they graduate. Lack of UVM coursework, career counseling and recruitment of graduates most likely account for these survey results.

Career Advancement Image 1

Understandably, a four-year liberal arts and sciences college education must be broad in scope to prepare students for a variety of opportunities, to cover topics that are fundamental to many disciplines, and to address important issues of our era. College degrees awarded in green industry fields, such as Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies, have increased substantially in the past decade. This has provided a larger pool of people with exposure to interdisciplinary curriculums that are applicable to UVM. This can be a positive or a negative for the UVM industry, which is still largely a fledgling career that falls somewhere in the middle of biological sciences & energy or forestry management degrees and the newer environmental sustainability degrees.

More students who are graduating understand the cultural and environmental issues that are at the heart of UVM,  but they are sifting through a growing range of environmental science job opportunities. UVM can get lost in the large menu selection.  Two year applied science degrees are likely to prepare a student for landscaping or turf management, plant health care or nursery production. UVM may not be significant on the radar of most associate or bachelor curriculums. UVM could be mentioned in an arboricultural curriculum, a forestry degree, or a horticultural program. However, it is only through random chance that college graduates know about UVM and intentionally approach the doorsteps of UVM departments and contractors.

More CUFs learned about UVM from line clearance workers working in their neighborhoods (15 percent) than through typical career selection channels. Four percent of survey respondents learned of UVM through college career recruitment programs (see Figure 2).

Attracting and Sustaining an Educated Workforce in the UVM Industry

The UVM industry has struggled to support research to solve the major issues of UVM that have persisted since the dawn of overhead electric distribution systems. For this reason, it is not surprising that the talent pool cultivated in universities and small colleges only comes to UVM through a random process.

UVM is ubiquitous to nearly all geographies worldwide, but its societal impact has not been significant enough for academia and regulatory authorities to define the educational parameters that should bear on the processes and outcomes of UVM.

If a forestry or green industry graduate meanders into a job opportunity in UVM, then he or she still has to decide whether to make a career in UVM. Are UVM jobs of sufficient quality to retain a new recruit, and if so, is there enough room to advance? This is reflected in the following graph (Figure 3) in which CUFs demonstrate a determination to advance their careers by “making it happen,” regardless of UVM opportunities.

Career Advancement Image 2

Based on the responses to the present survey, there is perception that opportunities are growing in the UVM consulting industry. However, previous industry-wide surveys have not shown sufficient evidence to support this assumption (see Figure 4, below).

Experience has shown that a new contract that includes forestry planning services may only require minimal arboricultural knowledge and no college degree. College level skillsets and arboricultural certifications are not universally required for UVM work-planning positions.

UVM distribution line clearance contracts do not consistently support the process of preplanning units of work, such as individual trees or spans of trees, by a degreed and certified utility forester. The fact that so many college educated people are currently available for the UVM industry may be lost to the many UVM programs that are only focused on getting the personnel resources that are skilled in cutting trees.

Hopefully, the utility vegetation management industry will recognize the need and the opportunity to rebuild their programs around sustainable environmental concepts while so many young people are interested and available.  The people needed to lead the 21st century UVM effort are attending and graduating from colleges, where more research and curriculum developments are needed to support and guide science-based UVM solutions.

Career Advancement Image 3

Utility Foresters’ Contributions to the UVM Industry: Future and Present

When asked to define the two most important improvements that should be made to the UVM industry, CUFs responded with the following observations:

  • Customer education and communication opportunities were mentioned the most. In fact, one third of CUFs mentioned the need for improvement in this area.
  • Technological improvements in field devices were the second most mentioned advancement needed.
  • Having access to applicable information (i.e. real estate records of property and easement agreements, information on line characteristics, etc.) came in third.
  • Other improvements mentioned by more than one respondent included:
    • Communication between utility and contractor, as well as clearance and planning contractors
    • Eliminate need for UVM through education and reduction of workload
    • QA/QC
    • Safety
    • Standardization and training for risk tree assessment
    • Better funding of UVM
    • More stringent regulations

Personal accomplishments that CUFs identified and skills thought to be important for performing the work were also captured in the survey. A consistent accomplishment identified by CUFs is obtaining industry certifications such as International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist, ISA Certified Arborist Utility Specialist and ISA Tree Risk Assesment Qualified.  In other words, continuing education was important to many CUFs.

“Making decisions for the utility, writing papers, public speaking and community outreach programs” are accomplishments that one respondent mentioned as fulfilling elements of the job.  This respondent identifies some ways that a CUF can have an important and sustainable impact on the UVM industry. Another respondent felt that completing two successful UVM cycles with the utility was a positive achievement.

The survey responses show that CUFs perceive their influence on the industry is best achieved by increasing their knowledge and keeping it current, finding ways to educate and positively reach out to the public on UVM issues, assisting the utility in making UVM decisions through their experience and knowledge, and attaining benchmarks set by the utility.

The skill set thought to be the most essential for consulting utility forestry includes verbal communication foremost, followed by arboriculture knowledge and written communication. Although written communication is an important skill set, it was identified as the least enjoyable work activity.  Written communication skills may be an activity that needs more emphasis in the UVM field as we become more conscious of data analysis, laws and regulations, and technological advancements.

The accomplishments and skills important to CUFs highlight the direction in which the UVM industry is moving. The work performed by CUFs requires the integration of knowledge and skills from a variety of different disciplines. Not only is a CUF a highly trained technician in measurement and data collection, he or she also needs advanced skills in arboriculture and customer relations. A CUF also needs to:

  • Understand the fundamentals of electricity and the current issues and advancements in electric distribution systems
  • Understand how to manage storm restoration response and how to manage other emergencies involving trees and power lines
  • Be able to identify unsafe conditions for the public and line clearance workers

The fact that a large percent of survey respondents understand the importance of obtaining professional certifications attests to their awareness of the importance of education.

Conclusion

In summary, the survey of UVM CUFs shows there is an enthusiastic group of professionals who are ready to take on knowledge, leadership and innovation to solve the issues of UVM. There is a perception that career opportunities will be there, and a majority of CUFs intend to make career advancement “happen” in the next five years. The UVM industry can reap many benefits from this educated and innovative set of professionals that understand, enjoy, and see the importance of the work for the utility, as well as the public.

 

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