Episode 36: Creating a Pathway for Students in Vegetation Management w/ Robert Vanderhoof

Episode 36: Creating a Pathway for Students in Vegetation Management w/ Robert Vanderhoof

Welcome to the 36th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management​​

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 36

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Dr. Robert Vanderhoof of Tall Tree Learning.

This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

Episode 36 Transcript

Philip Charlton: For this edition of the Trees and Lines podcast, we are again at the Trees and Utilities Conference. With us today is Dr. Robert Vanderhoof of Tall Tree Learning. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Robert Vanderhoof: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Philip Charlton: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the company, Tall Tree?

Robert Vanderhoof: I started Tall Tree Learning probably about six or seven years ago. One thing I saw working in the utility industry was that a lot of up-and-coming people were having difficulty getting through their ISA exams. It was a pretty big stumbling block for them. I started off with my own crews, teaching a course on the weekends to get them through their ISA exams, and it just grew. I think it grew to the point where I’ve got two classes twice a year, and I run through probably about 35 students each time.

Philip Charlton: Good. When you said, I started with my own crews, explain that.

Robert Vanderhoof: I worked for 15 years for a large Western utility, and I had crews in three different states. Sometimes, in the states I was in, some of them were very rural—Wyoming, that sort of thing—and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for these guys to study for their ISA exams. In other words, there were no classes available to them. There were no workshops. It’s pretty rural in Wyoming. I saw a whole there, and it was to our benefit to have people who are ISA certified. We just went out and started the courses.

Philip Charlton: It’s a great idea. I can’t think of any utility that I know of that’s offered that.

Tej Singh: That’s great. We did want to congratulate you on an award you received for your commitment to education by the UAA, so congratulations.

Robert Vanderhoof: Thank you. It was an honor. That was a complete surprise. I’m very honored by that.

Philip Charlton: Just for the audience, that was the UAA Education Award for this year. Wonderful.

Tej Singh: That’s right. You mentioned that you wanted to create a pathway for these students to get through their ISA exams. How are you shaping further education solutions for the industry? Are there other things that you’re thinking about to help the vegetation management community, especially given your background with your Ph.D. and that kind of deal?

Robert Vanderhoof: I’ve been teaching a few summer courses at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. In talking with the students there, I think there’s a real interest in students in the utility industry. I don’t think they know it exists. But once you talk to them a little bit about it and say, hey, look, here’s this whole new career path for you, and they say, really? I really never thought about that. Then you start asking, and pretty soon they’re asking you a million questions. Of course, one of them is, well, how much does it pay?

Tej Singh: Yeah, it’s a good question.

Robert Vanderhoof: But they find out that it can be a very viable and sometimes lucrative career path for them.

Philip Charlton: If you walk around this conference, people love the industry. I mean, it’s a good career path.

Robert Vanderhoof: Yeah, they do. I’ve had a great time.

Tej Singh: I know you spent some time at that Western utility for a good part of your career, but your entryway into utility vegetation management—was that something right out of the gates, or did you also fall into it unexpectedly?

Robert Vanderhoof: It was kind of unexpected. You can probably blame Randy Miller for it. Randy Miller and I went to school together at Stevens Point. We were college roommates.

Tej Singh: Okay. Again, this industry is– yeah, it all makes sense now. It’s a small community.

Robert Vanderhoof: Anyway, he came by one time for a conference he was going to. At the time, there was a big reorganization going on in the state government. He started talking about, hey, we really need people, and man, you could do this, and you could do that. You know how Randy is. I would say I got to thinking. Pretty soon, I got to think about it a little bit more. He started at me a couple other times, and finally, I ended up—I went to work for PacifiCorp, actually, when Randy Miller was there.

Philip Charlton: What’s your training material for the course? Is it the study guide Randy wrote?

Robert Vanderhoof: Yeah, it is primarily the study guide, but I’ll also use other material. There’s all sorts of videos out there, people doing a lot of really great stuff explaining things like code it and explaining things like active transport and trees. I use a lot of that as well. I find that younger people seem to respond to videos more these days than they do to trying to read the manual. I think that’s maybe one of the stumbling blocks that a lot of them have in getting through the reading material. I try to supplement it a lot with a lot of videos. Of course, there’s a weekly live session where I go through the material the week before, so they have somebody actually live there and they can ask a question. They can get somebody to clarify the material for them and straighten it out if they’ve got difficulties understanding some concept or another. They can take a little time and do that.

Tej Singh: Oh, that’s awesome.

Philip Charlton: You’re also a facilitator of the program out of Stevens Point, right?

Robert Vanderhoof: Yes, I facilitated one of them, but I can’t remember the exact names; it escapes me now. But the project management course is one that I do quite a bit of. I don’t think I’m doing it this year. I think they’ve got a gap in the students coming through. But I imagine next semester that one will be up and running again.

Philip Charlton: I encourage people to really look at that program. I think it’s just a great program. Do you encourage them?

Robert Vanderhoof: It’s a great program. I would encourage anyone. If you’re interested in managing utility vegetation, say at the utility level, or maybe one of the contractors that do that sort of work on a large scale, that’s the course. That’s going to give you the tools you need, things like project management, things that most people in UVM maybe don’t think about when they’re first coming in. That all goes into running a utility vegetation management program, learning about IVM, learning about project management, and learning about budgeting. It’s all in that course, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful.

Philip Charlton: It’s not an easy one, right? You’ve got to work at it. It’s at college level.

Robert Vanderhoof: No, it’s a commitment. There’s no doubt about it. Each course, I think, is generally about six weeks long, and to get through the entire thing, you need six or eight of them or something like that. It’s a major commitment, but I don’t know of a single person who has gone through it and regretted it.

Tej Singh: Given your varied background, both as somebody who’s been in industry and working in education, do you get called upon by other utilities to partner and help curate their education programs for their people? Is that something that you’ve been doing?

Robert Vanderhoof: Yeah, I do. I worked pretty closely with a number of the contractors. I think I get an awful lot of students from CNUC and ACRT—any number of those. I got them from Asplundh. I got them from Wright. They come from all over. Most of them have been very supportive. They really like the idea that there’s some place their people can go to give them a little help with this.

Tej Singh: Interesting.

Philip Charlton: Good, because I know that for a while, students were really having trouble passing that exam, so that’s really a needed service.

Robert Vanderhoof: We also do the utility specialist exam as well. That’s starting to pick up a little bit. When I originally started teaching the ISA prep courses, I really didn’t think about the utility specialist. I figured by that time, people were probably, if they got through the first one, they could get through the second or the third. But it’s growing in popularity just about every year.

Philip Charlton: It’s becoming something everybody’s got to have.

Tej Singh: One of the things that we talked about in the early days of the creation of Trees and Lines, and it seems to be a recurring theme, is the pipeline of people that are coming into this industry and filling jobs. You mentioned it earlier; awareness is a bit of an issue. There’s a lot of young talent out there. They just don’t know that these are career paths. I hear this over and over again. How are you involving yourself in trying to maybe increase that awareness beyond Stevens Point, but where can you connect across the education community and the utility community? Do you have any plans to help increase that awareness?

Robert Vanderhoof: Not really.

Tej Singh: You’re like, I’ve got my mandate; I’m good.

Robert Vanderhoof: I am in my retirement years. I’m hoping in the future, and this is still early on, but I’ve been talking with Les Werner a little bit at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point about maybe putting together an actual undergraduate-level course in utility vegetation.

Tej Singh: That’s a good idea.

Robert Vanderhoof: They get exposed early on, so maybe it’s not just the forest products industry. Maybe it’s not just urban forestry. There’s this whole other career path out there. If they get exposed to it in the undergraduate stage, I think you’re going to get a whole lot more people involved.

Philip Charlton: UW at Stevens Point is one of the few that makes students aware of the utility sector. Why do you think that is? Because we are a big part of the opportunity for people to go through those programs.

Robert Vanderhoof: Stevens Point has been a center for natural resources for years. In fact, everywhere I go, I run into people I either went to school with or went to Stevens Point. They graduate a lot of natural resource folks. It’s only been relatively recently that they have looked beyond the forest products industry into utility vegetation management. They’re excited about it. I think it’s going to expand. I think they’re going to be offering more things in the future, without a doubt.

Tej Singh: We spoke to Jason Grossman yesterday from Liberty, and he went to Oklahoma State University, and he mentioned that they are introducing some type of elective course in utility vegetation management. It does feel like people who have been degreed, have some relationship with their corresponding university, and have ascended in the UVM space are starting to connect and push formalized education at the university level, so I think it’s great. I think it’s important.

Robert Vanderhoof: Yeah, like you said, I think it’s not only Steven’s Point. I think everybody is realizing that–

Tej Singh: Yeah, we’re starting to see that.

Robert Vanderhoof: –we’ve got a manpower issue  

Tej Singh: Yes, very much so.

Robert Vanderhoof: We may not be able to hire our way out of it.

Tej Singh: Yeah, I don’t think you can.

Robert Vanderhoof: We may not. That’s where I think a lot of these new technologies will come into play to be able to more surgically use the manpower that you have now.

Tej Singh: That’s a very thoughtful point.

Philip Charlton: Most of your students are employed or they’re working, so they’re a little older than your typical college student.

Robert Vanderhoof: Yes, the vast majority of my students are already in the utility industry, although I get a few of the smaller ones from tree companies and that sort of thing. But probably the vast majority that come through are in the utility industry.

Philip Charlton: Even the program there out of university at Stevens Point encourages people who may not have gone through the college path.

Robert Vanderhoof: Yeah, exactly. It’s a certificate program there. They’re necessarily pushing for an entire college degree at UVM, but providing a direct career path at UVM gives them the essential tools they’re going to need going forward, as opposed to a full-blown four-year education.

Philip Charlton: I think it’s just a great program.

Tej Singh: Dr. Vanderhoof, you sound like you’re treating retirement like Dr. Phil Charlton over here, which is like you don’t seem very retired.

Robert Vanderhoof: I’ve been picking up a little bit. I do a little consulting work here and there and some expert witness stuff. But the nice thing about retirement is that you get to do the work you want.

Philip Charlton: You can choose.

Tej Singh: That’s fair. Well, thank you so much.

Philip Charlton: Or you can do podcasts.

Tej Singh: We really appreciate you joining us today. Again, congratulations on your award and all the great work that you’re doing. We look forward to seeing how you continue to expand the space. It’s fantastic.

Robert Vanderhoof: I appreciate that.

Tej Singh: Excellent. Thank you.

Philip Charlton: Thank you very much.

Robert Vanderhoof: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Outro: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines, brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you liked the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at We’ll chat with you soon.

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