Experience is the best teacher. We all know that. Right? Or is it? When someone tells you they have 20 years of experience, do they actually have 20 years of experience? Was there targeted feedback for 20 years? Did they actually hone their skills over a 20 year period? Or would it be more accurate to say that they have 1 year of experience lived 20 times. Most likely, it’s somewhere in between but my point is made either way.
To be clear, I’m not knocking job experience. I truly believe experience is a the best teacher. But, only if there is a mechanism for feedback. Not everyone is skilled at the art of self-critique and self-reflection. The reality is that there’s just no good substitute for a mentor or teacher skilled at providing targeted feedback. OJT doesn’t always provide that, and there are several reasons why.
First, you don’t often get the opportunity for skill repetition with targeted feedback. Second, it’s kind of a risky environment to learn new skills. Then there’s the whole production issue. Training takes time and time is money. Besides, your client isn’t paying for you to conduct training. Tree care companies struggle with this all the time. Even if they see the value in investing in OJT, they may not have skilled trainers. Sometimes they have willing and capable crew leads, but they’re training with an outdated bag of tricks. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know. And sometimes, you don’t know that you don’t know it.
At the 2021 TCI Expo, I heard versions of this story over and over. People would come to the Academy Trained booth and I’d give some version of my standard spiel. They’d be kind enough to listen but then they’d want to know exactly what skills their employees would come away with. They’d want assurances that they’d actually learn something new. Many told of awesome foreman that, despite their best efforts, we’re not effective trainers. Many had stories of training companies and organizations that fell short of expectations. As a training professional, it was extremely encouraging to hear that expectations were high. Checking the “training box” was clearly not the goal for the company leaders I spoke with. Fortunately for me, I was representing a company that specialized in hands-on practical skill development so I was speaking their language. Still, the conversations were really food for thought.
The conversations and stories definitely got me thinking more about what sets Academy Trained apart from other training companies. An obvious difference is that we don’t operate in the roadshow space. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do a roadshow, but it’s really not our thing. We’ve got this ranch in Santa Rosa, and we can set up our training grounds any way we want. We’re not limited to what we can ship to the client’s location and what we can do when we get there. To be fair, expecting a client to let us dig 30 holes to set up a Spar Park like we do at our Academy grounds is pretty unrealistic. Some would say it’s unrealistic for us to do period, but we’ve gotten good at setting up and tearing down. The first academy took a few days to set up. Now we can do it in a few hours.
But what is a Spar Park actually? The truth is, it’s a simulation. Simulations strike a balance. What’s being balanced is realistic skill performance (like what you get from OJT) and all those other things that come with a training environment. What comes with the training environment are reps, feedback and safety. I love the Spar Park. It was one of the most memorable parts of the first Academy course. The first course we called the “Academy Trained” course. It’s a flagship boot camp style course that includes several days of training in climbing, chainsaw ops, aerial rescue, and felling. The Spar Park training was the most grueling part of the entire week. If you were an experienced climber, it became a precision cutting course. If you were an inexperienced climber, it may have marked your first time spiking up a (simulated) tree. Regardless, you got personal attention, feedback, and reps. You performed match cut after match cut taking off little discs to preserve your spar as much as possible to maximize the number of reps. At the end, you’re left with a 10′ (ish) stick that you got to practice precision felling on. Is it a substitute for OJT? Not exactly. But the experience you gain during the simulations makes OJT more effective. It provides opportunities for practical skill application, in as close to a real environment as we can manage with targeted feedback. It’s like a driving range and putting green with a coach, except for tree people doing tree people stuff. Just as with any form of marksmanship, if you spend enough time at the range, you improve your odds of success once you get in the field.
Spar Park isn’t our only “driving range”. We’ve applied the same principle to work-climbs on our valley oaks. We have a swing park setup to practice hitch and body control. We have a Limb Park setup for rope advancement and limb walking that keeps the trainee “low and slow” and in close proximity to a trainer. We also have a limbing station we call the “Limbinator” that provides reps for limbing and bucking training. As an instructional designer, I’d love to take credit for developing these, but the credit really goes to our co-founder Jared Abrojena. He’s not just an ace climber (with a world championship under his belt) but he’s a natural when it comes to training. Our simulators are an outward representation of how Jared thinks and he thinks like a trainer.
At the end of the day, you could argue that these are “just simulations” and that would be true. But these simulations provide opportunities to drill on the rudiments and on the specific skills necessary to be more effective on the job and this includes being more effective at on the job training.