Episode 10: Outdoor Careers in Vegetation Management w/ Abernathy-VMServices’ Larry Abernathy

Welcome to the Tenth Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 10

Looking for an Outdoors Career? Vegetation Management Might be Right for You!

A conversation with Larry Abernathy, Consulting Utility Arborist

Tejpal Singh, COO and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor at Iapetus Infrastructure Services


From Retirement to Curriculum Development

Welcome to another episode of Trees and Lines. In this episode, we’re joined by Larry Abernathy, who has spent the last four years volunteering on behalf of the UAA and the utilities and colleges of California working to meet the needs for workers by the tree contractors and the pre-inspection companies.

For those that don’t know Larry, which probably are just a few, Larry has been around! He was with, the Davey Tree Company for 49 years. That’s pretty amazing. 

He retired. He was going to go fishing and then he offered to help out with something, and he’s been giving back for the last four or five years. Really amazing what you’ve done. So, talk to us a
little bit. Tell us a little bit about what you got involved with. 

Larry Abernathy: I retired in 2018, the day before April Fools’ Day. And I was in retirement, in the summer of 2019. I got a call from Phil—at the time you were the director of the Utility Arborist
Association. And he asked if I would get involved in a project that UAA had, which was to work with Pacific Gas Electric Company to develop a training program for entry level workers.

At that time in 2019, you might remember we had a lot of fires going. We had a lot of crews from all over the United States and California, and with all the resources they could, from throughout the whole United States and even Canada. They still felt that they needed at least another 3000 workers and there were just no qualified workers to be found.

So, as a result of a program that they came up with Pacific Gas and Electric company, gave over $6 million to develop a curriculum and a program for the training of these new workers. 

So, what happened next was, after getting involved with the college, I was able to—because of all my connections in the industry—bring to the college, knowledge of our industry and people, experts and friends and colleagues. And we all got together. I remember you came out, even Phil, we began meeting to decide how to put this program together.  And we assembled a group. And the college did a DAUM, which is a developer curriculum. And the DAUM is where we had contractors, we had PG&E, UAA, TCIA, ISA; all came to the table. We spent a day with a college facilitator that basically put the workers—the ones that are doing the work—in a room and actually on a wall with “stick-um” notes, they created a list of duties and tasks. So, they identified all the duties and tasks that a worker would to become an arborist, but more specifically a utility arborist.

Tejpal Singh: Something I wanted to ask before I forget is outside of Phil’s persuasion skills, which he has a lot to take you out of your fishing oasis, what was it about this particular
initiative project what attracted you to want to come back? Why are you so attached to that in this, especially when you’ve had such an amazing run and now you’ve essentially built a path to freedom for your own.  What was it about this specifically? 

A Compelling Industry

Larry Abernathy: We have a saying that in this industry if we get a person for five years, we get them for life. So, when I first started this job, not really knowing what I wanted to do or
be, but I was fortunate that my best friend’s dad was the system forester for San Diego Gas Electric.

So, I had a job right out of high school. I graduated like on Thursday and went to work on Monday. I created this passion, right? I mean, once you’re in our industry it’s a fairly small. Even
though we compete against one another, there’s things that we do, especially
through Utility Arborist Association that allows us to do things, to help
create a safer workplace. So yeah, the passion. I was also in scouting.  I was an Eagle Scout and loving the outdoors and all the things you do, basically matched what I love, which is the
outdoors. And it was a job where you don’t have to go to the same place every
day. You’re going somewhere in the county or whatever to different places in different
conditions, in different situations.

So anyway, the passion got built and I had a great career. 49 years with Davy, started as a grounds-person all the way up to where I retired as the vice president, general manager of the Davey Tree Surgery Company on the west coast. And the deal is when you retire, you in some ways you don’t just shut it off, right? So, when Phil called me to ask, I didn’t even have to think about it.  I was like, yeah, I know Phil called and I don’t really know in some ways if Phil, I don’t know the story behind the scenes, but it felt like there was a think tank that they were kicking around names.

And when my name came up, I guess they thought that I would be the best candidate. At that time, I was pretty busy. to have something out of retirement because I love to fish and hunt and all that. But you know, you can only do that so much.  So, at the time I was getting ready to retire the county, my county here, sent out a questionnaire about whether I would be interested in working and being on our county’s grand jury. And so, I said yes. I had gotten on the grand jury, the civil grand jury here. It’s pretty much, where you’re watchdog for county government. And I was heavily busy. I was the foreperson the year that Phil called, and that was like a full-time job.

So, when Phil asked me to do this, it was like he knew that I was doing all this, and he was like, “would you have the time to do it?”

“Absolutely. I’ll make the time.” I have a passion, because I feel like the industry’s been so good to me it’s one of those things, even in scouting, give back or make it better than you found it.

The Training Conundrum

Philip Charlton: We’re going to put you in charge of recruiting for the industry, Larry!  So, Larry, the idea of training, it’s always been the contractor’s problem or responsibility, how’s it been received? The idea that now PGE’s doing the training. 

Larry Abernathy: You know, having come from Davy, I only knew that world really. and Davey had an excellent training programming we’re an envy of the industry in that regard. And we always felt it was even a competitive advantage. So, coming out of the Davey piece, it was interesting to see what was out there from other companies when I got involved.

And I know that a lot of the companies that didn’t maybe have as robust a program or were just using, outside services to bring in their training. it was a good feeling too.  Work with a team that you could see that there was benefit.

And the other thing I saw too was that there’s some good talent out there that, if I was still the manager at Davey, I would try to recruit because there’s some really good trainers and I’ve learned a lot from people from the outside.  I never knew that much about OSHA 10, for example.  And some companies use OSHA 10 and we’ve incorporated that into the college program.

I think it’s without a doubt when we got that DAUM team together and created this curriculum—the five-week, 200-hour course—we were all excited. We knew we were making history because again, without PG&E’s funding, it would never happen because it does cost a lot of money. 

The Industry Catches On

Tejpal Singh: Do you think, Larry, the industry has done a good job of adopting what you guys built? Do you see this sort of spreading across the US and who else is following suit? 

Larry Abernathy: Yes. So, without a doubt, the industry, everybody wants to be a part of this. That was the thing about starting, it’s like bringing all the parties together with the community college system and, community colleges for the most part, in my opinion, were good for recruitment for pre-inspectors and those that got two-year degrees.

But to have the college system in California, where a worker that probably has no ambition or even thought about going to college is now coming on a college campus. And in learning these skills, basically, it’s a not for-credit course. I’ve heard it called, in California, “contract education”. 

The community colleges in California help employers or partners, wherever there’s a need, put training programs together. So, when they found our industry, oh my God, did they ever jump in! We have this program in seven community colleges up and down the state of California, and we’ve had over 42 or 43 graduations since 2019 of the arborist program. And then we just started.  After the arborist program got going and was well on its way, we developed a pre-inspector program, which because there was a need for pre-inspectors, again, PG&E funded that project. And we’ve had over a dozen pre-inspector courses, which is an 80-hour two-week course. Again, taking someone off the street and training to be able to do basically a level one hazard inspection, which is a drive-by/walk by inspection, and to be able to identify the trees that need to be trimmed or pruned.

Philip Charlton:  So, Larry, back to Tej’s question about the industry adopting this, what would it take for another state or another utility to do the same? 

Larry Abernathy: I know the Utility Arborist Association with their professional development committee. I joined that committee to just give them an update and then I thought it’d be good to join the team. I’m on that committee. But our goal now is to try to spread this.

That was what you Phil charged me with. “We want you to help start this in California and then spread it to the nation.”  We’ve been working with the University of Wisconsin. We connected both colleges. They’ve helped each other get some grants.  Both colleges got those grants. And the idea is that we would like to find a college or somebody in another state to pick up this program that we’ve developed.  PG&E has said we can share it with anybody. It’s not proprietary.  It’s out of the box, ready to go, but it’s the money!

Tejpal Singh: What specifically is the bulk of the cost?

Larry Abernathy: It’s really the cost of the instructors. This is really hands-on. So, what the college does is they hire the trainers from some of the prime contractors that work for the utilities. So, when we get into like, in weeks three, we’re in chainsaws and chippers. In weeks four we’re in climbing and week five is assessments.

Sometimes those ratios, we want those to be like one trainer per every five to six trainees, so, that’s where a lot of the expense comes.  I mean, there’s equipment we buy. We have a startup kit for each college…that’s just one time expense. And then maybe some replacement of things lost or broken or, but it’s just the labor. I would say that’s a very big piece of it. 

The Old Method- On The Job Training

Philip Charlton: These people that are recruited, they’re recruited by the college, they could go to the contractor and get trained, right?

Larry Abernathy: That’s the old method. When I got hired in the day, that’s how I got trained. You got hired on and it was all on the job. And if you were lucky enough to get a good foreperson and a good trainer, you would get good training.

And then the other thing is, that training on the job, you were also having to be productive. So, training on the job, you would get training over time. In California, to become a qualified line clearance arborist, you must have 18 months of “on the job” experience and then your employer decides if you’re competent and they can issue, their card that says you’re qualified to work around the power lines. Being qualified, the old-fashioned way was, let me say it this way. The trainees coming out of this class, will probably know more and have better skills than someone that’s been on the job six months that started the old-fashioned way, the way that most of us start. As matter of fact, all of us started except for the 400 or 500-plus trainees that we’ve graduated.

Continuous Funding is Needed

Tejpal Singh: So, Larry, now that you’re on this path, this is where you’re going to spend a lot of your time trying to bring this even more to the. 

Larry Abernathy: Yes. I feel like that’s my new role now is, to help the colleges. and they won’t let go of me. So, I can’t say no. Our next deal is the PG&E funds expires this coming June.

So the challenge now is to keep funding. And again, I told you that the college did get a grant, so I think that’s going to be good. And some of my activities now is to help the college find utilities to help fund these courses. And we’ve been successful.  San Diego Gas Electric has funded enough money to put on two cohorts, for this year and next year. So that’s four classes that they’ve funded. and then, we’re working with Southern Cal Edison we sent them a proposal. I feel like I’m back in the contracting business, trying to, actually asking and making the case that they need to invest in this. 

And then with the UAA, with that team of experts and professionals on that committee. We’re trying to figure out where can we take it? We’ve had a couple conversations with some colleges, but we haven’t had it take off.

Tracking the KPIs

Tejpal Singh: Outside of the funding, are you tracking the performance of, let’s just say there’s a hundred people that have come through this program, right? Do you have any sense of like where they are in their careers, how much they’re accelerating relative to their peer groups because they did this and being able to demonstrate to other potential capital and investors that like, look guys, the industry is moving to this.  Here are the KPIs and the metrics and blah, blah, blah. 

Larry Abernathy: You’re right on. You know what, as a matter of fact, I just sent a message to Dennis Fallon and I asked if the UAA could help us, the college, or I say us like I’m an employee of the college!  Annie Rafferty is the director. That’s really the spark plug in the college system. She knows everybody there. But I was chatting with her yesterday.  We have all the contact information for 400-plus graduates. UAA is going to help us, I think, hopefully through one of the committees where we could reach out to those.  Here’s the thing that the college did as part of the program. They agreed to give every graduate a one-year membership to the Utility Arborist Association. So, we have their contact information and they’re members of UAA for their first year. And the reason we did that is because there’s webinars and educational pieces that we want them to go and look and see. We haven’t done what you just described because we’re so busy getting enrollments and the program is pretty much developed. Now’s the time to make our case, that if you get this kind of training that pays a dividend, right?

I’d like to see the committee along with every college has a coordinator and develop a survey and find out whether they got employed. Are they still in the industry? Have they had any safety incidents?  I would like to hopefully see the real science behind the fact that this training is doing what we think it’s doing, if that makes sense.

You’re dead on. We need to do that next step now, and we’ve talked about it. It’s just that the priorities of other things. But now, talking to Annie yesterday about it, and then Dennis got back right away. We we’re all over that!

So, we’re going to try to put some things together and survey the graduates.  The other advantage of doing that for UAA’s sake is also to encourage to renew their membership. Not just take the one year free, actually stay with us.

The Demographics

Tejpal Singh: But it’s great that you guys are coming up with those incentives. Do you have a sense of what the demographic of these 400 people? Is it typically folks that are on the younger side, they themselves would be in that college range, or you have people that are switching careers and thinking about doing different things?  What does that world even population look like? 

Larry Abernathy: I would think about 90% of the people that come to this course have no experience, and that’s the best. You get to train the new dog the proper procedures. Out of the over 400 graduates, there’s females and it’s amazing that some of the gals that are doing the climbing, I’ve actually heard that they’ve outperformed some of the guys.  At some of the graduations, 10% or better on the female attendance. But I will tell you some of the graduations that we hold on Zoom so that people can from all over the US, TCIA, UAA, can all attend if they can’t be there in person.

And some of the testimonies that we get from students, especially the gals, it brings tears to your eyes sometimes because it’s so rewarding to see what they got out of it.

California Conservation Corps Partnership

Philip Charlton: I would think that, if you found community colleges near a disadvantaged community, there’s so much need for workers… this course gives you a lot of opportunities. 

Larry Abernathy: One other thing that we probably have pretty good attendance with is the colleges have connected with the California Conservation Corps.  I don’t know if you know much about the Conservation Corps, but that’s where young people volunteer their time.  Usually it’s a one-year commitment, maybe two, I’m not sure. But the Conservation Corps teaches them how to use chainsaws and chip brush and all that stuff for firefighting. The partnership connection with the California Conservation Corps has been one where we’ve had a lot of graduates.

And matter of fact, we’ve had the San Diego classes. The two that we’ve had—actually I think we’ve had three in San Diego—but they were all held at the California Conservation Corps through the San Diego community college system. It’s a very interesting group of people that have come to our course.

Some people have been laid off, let’s say, or they’re in between jobs they’ve had, we’ve had some that have worked for I guess a mom-and-pop tree company and then they come over go through our training and so they get taught the right way. 

Tejpal Singh: And you’re where in California? 

Larry Abernathy: I live in Calaveras County, which is south and east of Sacramento, about an hour in the foothills. It’s gorgeous here. It’s a high fire area all the time. 

So that’s the other thing I do in the spring—and it is good therapy—is get on my tractor and make defensible space.

Tejpal Singh: Well, you’re trained.  I’m usually out in California regularly, so we’ll definitely have to get together, grab some dinner and continue this dialogue because it’s fascinating what you’ve a what you’ve done over the course of your career, but what you’ve got your hands in now.

What I was going to say previously was like, Phil and I just have had an ongoing dialogue with other guests and even internally just about the industry is going to have a bit of a resource crunch. And so what you’re doing and  what you’re leading is I think very critical to, the protection of this very unique and special industry and impactful industries.

So, congrats on having such an impact. It’s amazing to see in here.

Philip Charlton: We talked about him leading the charge with the tree worker training and the pre-inspection training. I believe you’re still on the board and you’ve been really instrumental in the Utility Veg Management professional development program that’s now offered out of Wisconsin. 

Larry Abernathy: Yeah. Neil Theissen gave me a call just before I was retiring and asked if I would help. And I said, “Well, if you think I can help, I’m there.”  So, he sucked me into that one. 

But I enjoy it. It is really good. 

Philip Charlton: Neil was a better recruiter than I.

Tejpal Singh: Larry… your reputation. I think everyone’s going to be like, when they watch this, “Let me call Larry, because he’s making himself available.”

Larry Abernathy: Well, that is the beauty of some of this is. We, even at the college, we’ve presented at UAA, TCIA, ISA.  We’ve made presentations, webinars, and stuff. And it’s so good that when people hear they all want to be a part. And so it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

Tejpal Singh: this was a fantastic session, my friend. Thank you so much for making time today. I really enjoyed listening to your background and what you’re up to. It’s pretty fantastic.

Philip Charlton:  It’s nice to hear the passion, thanks Larry. 

Larry Abernathy: Thanks a lot for having me. 

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