Worker Retention & Turnover

March 26, 2020

By Will Nutter, President and COO

Worker recruitment and retention have been some of the most talked about topics in the industry over the past several years. There have been presentations, panel discussions, articles and more centered on this topic and how to fix it. Personally, I have had a multitude of discussions about worker retention with peers, customers, competitors and the industry in general to share our experiences and discuss the labor shortage we are facing.


Do we have a crisis on our hands, or are we just not keeping up with the market?

Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom weighed in and made sweeping changes in the wage and benefit package for anyone performing line clearance work in California. A new regulation, SB247, allows local unions to negotiate a wage package with a 40% or more increased pay for line clearance workers, based on entry-level line construction worker wages and compensation. This is one indication that we as an industry are not keeping up with our peer groups. When employees leave our employment for better wages, benefits or opportunities, we must take a hard look at ourselves.

Many of us are looking for answers, silver bullets or maybe just a life preserver to help get the work done. While there are maybe no silver bullets, doing the same thing year after year and expecting different results is not a plausible plan either.

Much of the research I discovered when I was asked to present on this topic at the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Annual International conference and facilitate a panel at Trees & Utilities conference last year showed that we do have a problem. Turnover in our industry is at nearly 50% and most people leaving the industry are leaving for better pay and less physical work.

The research Annie Fletcher, contract manager at Duke Energy, shared with me gave a good insight into our field workers. She found that most who left really enjoyed our line of work and it took almost an additional five dollars an hour to get them to leave. When they stayed, they stayed because they liked their supervisor. Likewise, when they left, they left because they dislike their supervisor and they didn’t feel the industry was valued as a profession when compared to utility workers or other professional industries.

The feedback the Utility Arborist Association (UAA) received indicated that many factors impacted turnover; pay, work type (fixed price verse time & material), contract length, perception on the ability to advance in this industry, supervisor, culture and tenure to mention a few. Turnover rates for the first year are in the upper 70% range, while the five to fifteen-year turnover rate fell to 24%. So, if we can keep new employees past a couple of years, they see the benefit of staying in the industry long term.


What are we doing about it?

The UAA and Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) have development committees looking for a diversification of our workforce and studying what is working and what isn’t. Wages are being increased to slow turnover and contractors and utilities are jointly working on opportunities to improve retention. Pilot programs to recruit, train and attract new employees to our industry through conventional and non-conventional paths are increasing daily.

We are not alone. The trucking association claims they are 50,000 drivers short and they are raising compensation by double digits toward an average salary of $70,000 per year. Commercial construction index indicates a labor shortage that continues to challenge the industry, causing 81% of firms to ask the skilled worker to do more work, 70% struggle to meet deadlines, 63% increase costs for new work and 40% reject new projects. The construction industry says a contributing factor to the increased turnover could be the negative perceptions of construction careers for younger workers, leading to fewer workers seeking employment in the industry. When asked about the biggest myths about the trade, 61% of contractors cited the perception that all jobs are “dirty” jobs, 55% said it requires brute strength, 52% said and it’s a job – not a career. Does any of this sound familiar?

The challenge of recruiting and retaining employees will not become easier soon. As an industry, let’s not do the same thing and expect different results. Let’s partner, collaborate, brainstorm and most of all, let’s not give our current employees a reason to go look for a better paying, easier job. They just may find one unless we do our part.


This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.