Episode 14: Utility Arborist Workforce Development w/ Butte College’s Annie Rafferty

Welcome to the 14th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast Transcript- Episode 14

A conversation with Butte College, Director of Contract Education, Training & Development, Annie Rafferty

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


Philip Charlton: Welcome to another episode of Trees and Lines. On this episode, we have Annie Rafferty, Director of Contract Education, Training, and Development at Butte College. She joins us to talk about facilitating industry-driven people in the training programs offered by Butte College. Annie is an accomplished global talent development professional and has some great insights in her approaches for career development in the industry.

Have a listen. Hope you enjoy.

Welcome, Annie. It’s been a while since we’ve talked.

Annie Rafferty: It sure is good to see you. Thank you.

Philip Charlton: We had Larry Abernathy on not long ago and Larry is so excited and such a good advocate for the programs you have out there that we wanted to talk to you a little bit about some of the details.

We really appreciate your joining us. Tell us a little bit about yourself first, and then just a real quick overview of the tree work and pre-inspection training you provide.

Annie Rafferty: I’m the director at Butte College for our workforce training and development, and I also hold a role as executive director of our UpSkill California Utility Line Clearance arborist program and our pre-inspector program that’s been funded by Pacific Gas and Electric.

A Network of Colleges / A Pipeline of Workers

We work with employers upskilling their workers, and in the California community colleges, we also focus on program development for a pipeline of workers to be able to safely perform the work out in the field.

Philip Charlton: That’s incredible. Rather unique approach you’ve taken because it’s just not Butte College. This is a network of colleges.

Annie Rafferty: That’s correct. Back in 2019, we all sat around the table and asked, “What’s the vision? What’s our goal? Who do we want to be involved in this program?”

And it was not just a lens on Butte College, it was a lens on California and how we can engage our California community colleges across the state: UpSkill California. We have about 42 or so colleges that are in that network. And of those, we identified where workers were needed and selected the colleges in those areas to implement this program that is so very needed, for consistency across California with access for our utility contractors and the utilities in those particular areas.

A Five-Week and 200-Hour Program

Philip Charlton: And the tree worker training, it’s a five-week program still.

Annie Rafferty: Yes, the arborist project is five weeks, 200 hours. That allows an individual to contribute the first week, get the certifications they need, have an opportunity to earn while exploring the career, gain an understanding of how the rest of their life actually could look, and get excited about the work.

That first week offers certifications with flagger first aid, safety and CPR. And we begin the EAP, the Electrical Hazards Awareness Program Certification. They also get an OSHA 10 card. If during the first week they decide that maybe it’s not for them, it allows us to work with that individual and provide them with a path maybe to a different industry. They have those safety cards that prepare them, ready for hire, for another type of job. But then two things get interesting. We get into mobile equipment and how to operate that equipment. and then the course continues to build on with week three of chainsaw and chipper grounds.

Then week four, things get exciting. We get them up in the trees with climbing. And then week five is when we bring all the certifications together, around the particular areas that are involved with the training. So it’s five weeks, 200 hours, for them to get excited and confident, in performing those skills safely.

Philip Charlton: So how many students have been able to go through?

Annie Rafferty: We are in class number 47, for the state of California. We have 525 workers with an additional 16 who are coming out of a class from College of the Sequoias in a couple of weeks. Today’s Friday and they often would not be working, but today the class is in operation down at Folsom.

We have a great crew down there of 20 California Conservation Corps members who are given an opportunity to career pathway into the utility arborist, industry. That’s exciting for those individuals to be able to demonstrate their commitment. The California Conservation Corps really positions them in a way that helps them determine which pathway that they would like to explore for themselves.

Training Opportunities to Invest in Workers

Tejpal Singh: Have you always been involved in training and development as your core background?

Annie Rafferty: I have. Prior to joining Butte College, I worked for a company on the East Coast for 23 years as a frontline employee. Over the 23 years, I continued to move within the organization. When I left that company, I was the senior vice president of our global training operations. We had 40 offices in nine countries. Our goal always was to provide consistent training among those offices according to an ISO standard.

I went to Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, continued at Rider University, and then earned my master’s degree at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. That part of that journey was the engagement and sense of family that I belonged to with the company. They invested in me and offered me and all our employees upward ability and opportunities to grow within the company.

When this position became available at Butte College about 15 years ago with the network of California Community Colleges, I saw that same opportunity to be able to give back, lean into that worker, and lean into a company that is really making an investment in that worker.

So I understand what that feels like and, and that’s how I got involved in training and development. I started out on the quality side and then said, “There’s got to be a science to this, you know?”

Tejpal Singh: Are you somewhat agnostic to the industry? When you think of training and development, if we were talking about aerospace or technology, what do you believe runs through the DNA of a training and development program that any industry can adopt and apply?

As an organizational leader, I recognize how important continuous learning is, right? It’s making sure that the people in your organization, including yourself, are constantly learning and understanding how the market is changing, how to deal with complex situations, and be prepared.

For you, as an architect of this type of program, what sits at the root?

Solutions-based Program Design

Annie Rafferty: Getting to the root of what problem you’re seeking to solve, or the actual job or task you’re seeking to be proficient in, is digging down into the job itself. With our utility project, we performed a job task analysis prior to focusing on the design of the program.

What’s most important is that you’re training in the right areas that allow an individual to have repetition, especially with a skill. They can develop that skill in a concentrated, focused, safe environment with the right professional expert trainers around them to master that skill.

Equally as important as the learning objectives (the content, art form and design of the training) is the instructor who is carrying that message and how they use their five core competencies to be able to engage the individual. Because as adult learners, we all come with a previous experience of performing a task or an understanding.

The knowledge that’s involved impacts the work that we do. And it’s the job of that instructor, the critical role that they carry, being able to tap into understanding where that individual is coming from and what new skills they need to develop.  Many of our trainees bring with them other experience and what’s most important is understanding how to modify that behavior, if necessary, to ensure that if we have two people performing the job next to one another, it looks like a fantastic ballet or maybe an Irish river dance where everybody’s doing the same orchestrated choreography together. In this industry, from a safety perspective, that’s what’s most critical. This individual’s going to go out and form a job with a crew, and it might not be the same crew every single time. How can we empower them to be their best selves and be aware of the crew around them in a safe way through communication.

Getting back to your question, how do I see things? As I used to say at my former company, we were like the liberal arts of college because we serve so many organizations in different industries. The same holds true here. We serve multiple industries and it is critical to be able to home in on what skill the worker needs to perform or what the problem we’re seeking to resolve.

Is it rework? Is it injuries? Is it a retention issue? People aren’t feeling good about their job? What are they not feeling good about? Getting to the root cause of the issue or job task that’s being performed. That’s what’s fun about this work because you’re not wasting people’s time.

We’re getting to the heart of the matter. When we were sitting around the table, we asked, “What do we want this program to look like? Is this just a post campfire Butte college project?” No. As long as trees grow, people are going to have jobs. This is a California opportunity.

Broad-based Stakeholders from Utilities to Contractors

How do we invite that engagement with key stakeholders? Are we able to pull the camera back and look at what we are seeking to do together? It gets really exciting and rewarding, which is what you also experienced with Larry around the real passion of getting people to feel good about their jobs.

Philip Charlton: What you’re talking about has always been the responsibility of the service provider (the contractor that’s going to hire the tree worker). Is the utility seeing a difference in the training?

Annie Rafferty: The beauty of this program is a “we.” There’s no “I” in an individual college or an individual utility contractor. What is most impressive about this program is we built a foundation with 6, 7, 8 utility contractors engaged. It’s a very competitive environment when it comes to utility contractors (i.e., who gets to perform work in particular areas). And they’re all together, often in a classroom together, serving and developing that trainee.

What’s important about that is, from the owners of the company, there are continual questions from the utility contractors. “Annie, what do you need? How can we help you? What else can we be doing to grow this program?”

We have such a strong foundation with these skills training sessions. It’s important that we sustain that. And that was one of our goals. Our goals were to attract, train, retain, and sustain. So very clear and simple. They’re all engaged around that. It’s an ongoing conversation and not something that anybody was willing to sit a book on the shelf and say, “oh, that was a really great program we did back in the day.”

And remember, we had everybody involved. It’s a lean-in approach, and continual process improvement. We’re building on that from the utility contractor and from a Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric perspective. They attend our graduations. They see the individuals meet and achieve their milestones. We’ve been able to leverage Zoom to be able to include our national and state partners, including legislative, curious individuals about the program.

From Pacific Gas and Electric, somebody asked me the question, “Well, what else do you need from PG&E?” I was kind of taken aback and I said, “I can tell you that PG&E has been, between weekly involvement and graduation, involved.”

Continuous Improvement and Outcomes

How are we continually looking to improve and see more graduates come out of this class? Bring diversity with females? We have a consistent 12–13% female population attending classes and it’s so exciting. What I have found we’re really grateful for is that PG&E didn’t say, “Here’s your funding. Good luck colleges. We believe in you,” and give us like a cheerleader, pompon kind of speech.

What has been important is that they’ve paid attention to the outcomes. The investment wasn’t just a nice to have. This is a need to have and it’s the future. We’re learning, especially from folks like you (Phil) and Larry who have been in the industry for a long time, it’s consistency and how one was trained.

Back to the science and the art of training. If you look at that from a data perspective, that skill would’ve been trained in slightly different ways: a little bit about whatever that individual brought to that learner at the moment. What’s most important is being able to have that consistent delivery across, across the map.

And the utilities have leaned into that with excitement. They see that they too matter, and the professionalism of the career integrated in a technical education program. It’s currently a fee-based, contract education project and program here within the college.

Long-term Program Vision

The long-term vision is that someone young can see the program when they look at #outdoorcareers. What does that look like? They could get into the US Forest Service, they could get into Cal Fire, they could get involved with a, a local fire council. But there’s this utility arborist job that was kind of hidden behind door number two. And that visibility that PG&E has invested in is what’s most important for people not knowing about this as a job or a career.

Tejpal Singh: You hit it on the head. It feels like not just in California, but as you move across the US, not a lot of people know that this is an actual path and it’s an important path. It’s one that’s growing, and there are a lot of technical elements to it.

The fact that you are taking on that responsibility of education and training, we don’t see enough of it. Hopefully you have kicked off something that’s going to trickle across the US, as well.

What are a handful of things that you see as bogies right now? Some of the challenges? Sounds like you have good partners, you have funding, but what are some of your concerns or risks that you’re dealing with as you continue to work through this program?

Long-term Career Paths

Annie Rafferty: One of the educational opportunities that we have is that, at the colleges, we don’t only produce a pipeline of a new workers but a career path.

In the unit I’m responsible for in UpSkill California, 95% of our work (besides this project) is working with an employer to determine a career pathway for the worker that is a relationship with the employer. How to progress that individual either from a technical skill or a leadership skill.

Getting out that message that we’re not only focused on a pipeline is super important because that train needs to continue to run. But now, being able to look at the areas where the existing workers work alongside our IBEW partners here in California, how can we be a great partner for that utility contractor and the utilities?

I’ve always asked the question because I come from a lean and an ISO background of not only how are we efficiently providing training for the person, but also efficiently and cost effectively for the organization? Everyone evolved without having everybody drive all over the place. I usually say, “So tell me more about that certification that you need. Where do you need to go to get that?” Instead of driving, that’s non productivity time, that’s cost of the travel and wear and tear for the worker. What’s involved and where’s the environment that we could create locally: their community college. They can tap into that community college and be able to access it.

I see us being able to grow addressing the existing worker and providing facilities for ongoing training. That allows the utility contractor to continue to work on their work. Not that training is outsourced. We’re a partner when particular situations occur. We just had a significant amount of snow which is unusual – so the soil is wet, and trees are damaged. We have a lot of storm work occurring. That’s a different type of work. How is work conducted safely during that type of condition which is 360⁰ opposite of dry, hot summers? What do those conditions look like for the worker out in the field?

We’ve been asking ourselves that question more recently because we have a pre-inspector project that we haven’t talked about yet. An individual who really understands tree conditions and, like a flagger guiding traffic, a safety individual on the crew who is assessing other trees that in other conditions could present a problem to the crew.

There are always new things that show up because our environments are always changing, but we’ve got a lot of smart people around the project and around the work. And the utilities do, as well.

Metrics and Measures

Philip Charlton: Attract, train, retain, and sustain. Do you have any metrics yet?

Annie Rafferty: We do. From an attraction perspective, we’ve been able to build partnerships with our California Conservation Corps, our California Workforce Association, accessing individuals who are either unemployed or underserved populations. We’ve been collecting, primarily, initial demographics of the individuals who’ve been coming into the attract goal of that pipeline.

We currently have a good jobs challenge through the Department of Commerce, a federal government project, with our foundation for California Community Colleges.  We’re going to be collecting more demographics. We could start to look at the importance of partnering with tribal communities and engaging other organizations that are all on the same path to keep our environments safe and still be able to keep the power on and live safely. Being able to expand our attraction through all of our partners, there’s a lot of synergies that are continuing to align. It’s always a good conversation or good relationship where it moves from great idea to action.

Some of the other metrics we’ve been tracking are the proficiencies within the training. We have this fantastic Developing a Curriculum analysis where we analyze the job tasks. For the arborist, what are the tasks associated with that? We updated it in December. Taking that map, we align each area of the curriculum and it’s kind of like a great game board that is color coded according to the areas that we address and those job tasks that are being performed.

Those measures are our next area. For all the learners, we have tests that they have to complete, both written and proficiency score tests. We collect the data. We use the Tree Care Industry Association year one apprentice program. And looking at year two, because what this individual is exposed to within the 200 hours does creep into other awareness that, is in another TCIA program that we’ve been working with.

Worker Movement and Proficiencies

We’re going to be evaluating 2.0 of our program in 2023 (in the next couple of weeks). We’ll be taking what we did in December and updating it. That’s what’s most important. It’s not just a book on a shelf.

This is an ongoing program that we take a continuous process improvement approach to. So those metrics are going to be important, especially when it comes to the utility contractor, back to the person who may move from contractor to contractor. The data that we can help collect will inform the utilities and the contractors where those workers may move.

We had trainees in San Diego, 20 Conservation Corps members, graduate from our program. That Monday, the Dixie fire broke out and they came up here to Northern California to fight that fire and already had proficiency and skill. We know confidently that as those workers move around, that we can share their performance metrics, according to what the standard is.

Tejpal Singh: Yes, we talked to Larry Abernathy a little about following the life cycle of a student. Basically, you’ve got 500 folks who have come through the program. Being able to track their impact and performance relative to someone who has not had that formalization is very important to show it is working. What you’re doing seems like it can scale with other states, other utility partners, community colleges. I think it’s a very clever approach to building awareness, building a pipeline, supporting an industry and a community. You guys are doing great work. This is  really impressive.

Industry Support

Annie Rafferty: Thank you. It’s super rewarding. We have found with our committees, and a couple of different national organizations that Larry and I participated in I’m getting calls. We get letters of support from different universities and colleges that are interested in learning more, “Hey, when you’re ready, how can we learn from you?”

Likewise, that’s a two-way street because in the natural resources programs, an individual trying to find their own career pathway, it’s up to us to design the career path that says, “Here are all the opportunities that you can explore, leaning into your own strengths, or that you can contribute to.”

We need smart inspectors out there. We need people who are super curious about biology, tree risk assessments, and the qualification of the hazards that are documented in the prescriptions for a particular job. Everybody can find a space and   bring them alive. That’s our role as educators and as employers, as well, to tap that talent and find out, “What brings you alive? Because your spirit, your skill, and knowledge is going to contribute to the bottom line here for us all to be successful together.”

Expanding Geographies

Philip Charlton: Talk to us a little bit about other states or other utilities. Can it be taken elsewhere and what would that involve?

Annie Rafferty: Yes, that would just broaden the perspective from a region, right? So different regions all have cultural and environmental issues that are particular to that area. The beauty is in engaging the partners with the right energy and the right chemistry of the people in the room. This is certainly an opportunity. Others can replicate, working closely with the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, being able to provide that pathway of professional training.

That’s also been important to us, too. Staying close to that because, at the end of the day, an individual could move. We look at how workers move in this industry and what’s our responsibility and commitment. Somebody says, “I came from that UpSkill California Community College and Utility Partner project over on the West coast and I’m here on the East coast.” We want to carry the credibility that individual can perform the job safely. There’s a great opportunity here. 

UAA Support

Working with the Utility Arborist Association, in particular, has been critical to providing ongoing education and resources to those individuals.

When somebody graduates from our program, they get a one year membership to the UAA. We encouraged that at their graduation and by working with Dennis Fallon at the UAA and his team. We also have a stipend program that PG&E invested in, similar to the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point scholarships. And we developed a program for stipends from the UAA to be able to pay the workers for whom it’s a hardship.

They take a five-week class for 200 hours without any income for a while. That’s a hardship for an individual.

This larger scale opportunity, homing in on particular areas of the United States, centralization, and global look at the same time.

It’s been important to really check in with those other state and national partners (and Canada, too) in our sub communications.

Tejpal Singh: I’m Canadian, so that’s great! Well, Annie, this was a really great opportunity for us to chat with you. I feel like this is a conversation we’re going to revisit in a future podcast to monitor what you guys are up to.  But thank you for, making time today.

In Closing

Annie Rafferty: Well, thank you for reaching out and your curiosity about the program. Would welcome you to participate in any of our Zoom graduations. We have one coming up next week. I’ll send you an invite and then you could see firsthand from the learner’s perspective their takeaways from the program.

I would welcome keeping in touch, and appreciate Phil, in particular, and the UAA’s continued interest in this program and leadership since 2019. We can’t do this alone.

Having that confidence in us has been critical for us to be able to build the right program to meet the right needs.

Philip Charlton: That’s it for this episode of the Trees and Lines podcast, brought to you by Iapetus Infrastructure Services. If you like the show, please give us a rating of five stars on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests in the future, we’d love to hear from you.

Please contact us at We’ll chat with you soon.

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