GF Corner: Hiring – Candidate Adaptability is Key

January 1, 2013
By Aaron Swallow, General Foreman, Wright Tree Service

The hiring process is a simple one: fill out the necessary paperwork, turn it in to the home office, send the potential hire in for a drug test, and wait for the results. The hard part is finding the right person to hire. You can take the rookie with no experience and a lot of will and potential, or you can go after the savvy veteran who answers all of your interview questions correctly and has worked for every contractor on earth. The choice should be easy, right? I don’t think so. In fact, it is very difficult and a decision that we must not take lightly. You have to find a way to assess a candidate’s potential, and experience alone is not enough. In my opinion, if you hire for character and integrity, the end result will be a safe, productive employee.

Hiring a rookie is a double edged sword, whether he or she is a first round NFL draft pick or the next suitable groundman for your company. On one hand, there is potential – a possible crew leader down the road.  On the other hand, he or she may not last through the week.  Choosing to hire the veteran comes with some drawbacks as well. I am positive that experienced trimmers never go to an interview without thinking they will get the job. They have all seen everything; they’ve run equipment and have been climbing for 20 years. Well, too often, there lies the problem. In many cases, it is not what we know, but how much potential we possess to gain the knowledge necessary to be a good trimmer. I will never forget what one of the first experienced trimmers I hired told me in his interview. When I asked him how much experience he had in the industry, he replied, “I can take a tree down over a glass house.” I should have known right then and there that he was not the right person for the job at hand.

I think the one thing we all must identify in a candidate is his or her ability to adapt to new standards. It has been my experience that rookies have more adaptability than veterans. It has been easier for me to put extra work into training a young man or woman who is eager and wants to learn the right way of doing things than it is to change the mindset of an experienced trimmer with a mass of bad habits. Initially, it puts more strain on a manager to watch a young climber fumble around a tree than to watch someone who has been around the business. However, I think that strain is worth the reward.

I hired a young man about two and half years ago who was green as green can get. He had spent time in factories and plants doing a variety of tasks, none of which required the use of a chain saw. On his first day, he informed my supervisor and me that he would be the best trimmer we have. We both chuckled at that statement, but he proved himself correct. He has made his way up from groundman to lead foreman and fill-in general foreman. I could not be more pleased with the outcome. I put him through the ringer and watched him come out on top.

There is a catch when hiring green employees. You as the general foreman need to have support from both your company and your customer. However, this is by no means an easy sell. Most of the time you will be asked to bring in experienced trimmers, for good reason. Trimming around energized conductors is a very dangerous job, and finding someone with the knowledge it takes to do so safely is hard.

There are a few things you can do to better your chances of getting the support you need to hire green tree trimmers. First, explain your reasoning. Describe the circumstances and the issues that experienced trimmers can have with new safety rules. You will not find a utility where safety is not a number one priority. Second, get permission to train your crews. Paid training days are a must for every vegetation management contractor out there.  Third, be consistent. I believe that people want structure in their lives, especially on the job. If I know what my supervisor expects of me, the chances of me reaching and even exceeding those expectations are greater than if those expectations changed frequently. Lastly, be prepared to train. Physically show your crews how you want something done, and then be there when they perform the technique the first few times.  I do not accept letting someone fail as a reasonable option. Trees and energized conductors do not give second chances.  Properly training a green employee is an achievable goal, and the 15 men that I work with are living proof. You can be successful hiring inexperienced employees, but you have to be willing to put in the work.

I’m sure my experience with rookie employees does not hold true for all of you. It may not even hold true throughout my own career. There are many experienced trimmers who are currently looking for work, and some of them would certainly be great additions to anyone’s team. But again, it’s their adaptability that is key. Can the candidate be molded to fit the form that you need them to? Does he or she have the drive and ambition to do a great job, or is that person going to cut corners and work the system? There are countless questions that are relevant when adding someone to your group, but the one we all must be cognizant of is: What can this candidate add to my crew?

The hiring decisions you make today will always affect your tomorrow.