Why UVM Research and Education is So Important

By William Porter, Director of Research, Development and Industry Intelligence

On October 19, 2016, 15 forestry professionals attended a panel discussion on utility vegetation management (UVM) at the Illinois Arborist Association Annual Conference & Trade Show. During this session, the attendees filled out a written survey and answered questions raised during the discussion. 60% of the participants were utility employees, 33% were contactors and one person was a non-utility forestry professional. The majority of the panel had more than five years of experience in the utility industry, and 40% had more than 10 years of experience. 93% were certified arborists, 67% were utility specialists and 27% were tree risk assessment qualified (TRAQ).

Most attendees felt that industry publications have been the most successful conduit for UVM knowledge transfer. Other choices for knowledge transfer included meetings, conferences, social media, websites, and on-the-job experience. Some indicated that on-the-job experience is limited by the training capabilities of supervision. 80% of the meeting attendees felt they are in a long-term career in UVM, while 20% said they are undecided.

When talking about the future of UVM, participants were given a choice between three possible outcomes for the UVM industry in the future. They responded as follows (see Figure 1).

will-porter-graph-12-30-16_two (Figure 1)

This is a surprising response given the track record for UVM throughout the past five to 10 decades. This author with 25 years of experience and a decade of conducting research in the UVM industry would posit that the primary purpose has been to competitively serve the needs of reliable electric service. Could we assume by the response seen in Figure 1 that UVM is or should be responding to the needs for modern urban and rural forestry? Can we assume that following the pruning specifications of ANSI A300 isn’t enough? Can we assume we should coordinate our UVM efforts in ways that effectively align with communities’ and utilities’ strategic goals for carbon reduction and sustainable urban and rural forest benefits? This is a bit of a stretch from the simple Shigo 90-3-90 guideline for UVM in use since the 90s. The world has changed since Dr. Shigo brought us to a higher level of practice informed by tree biology, mechanics, and best management practices.

In fact, there is consensus that we need an academic foundation to support utility corridor management. 100% of the conference attendees for this utility breakout session replied affirmative to the question: Do you think forestry and urban forestry curriculums should include courses that teach how UVM is practiced and address the major issues confronting today’s utility arborists and foresters?

The TREE Fund, UAA Research Fund, CEATI UVM Research, ROW Stewardship Council, and the Arbor Day Foundation are all vehicles to further the knowledge of UVM. Most recently in 2016, a complete curriculum in UVM is being offered. This 2 and a half year, primarily online professional development program will be the precursor to receiving an industry recognized credential for becoming certified as a UVM Professional. This program is made possible through the auspices of the Utility Vegetation Management Association and the UAA. This training is offered through, SAIT, a worldwide provider of long distance and face-to-face education, training and workforce development, with a main campus in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (sait-training.com/PUVM)

What questions should the approaches to educating our industry be asking? How we define UVM work, the objectives for performing it, the metrics for determining success, and who funds it are a few key issues. These assumptions and principles are important not only to utility companies and the careers and lives of the 40,000 to 50,000 workers who support the industry, but they are valuable to our whole society. Solving important issues such as the high rate of worker turnover—more than 30%—and the extraordinary challenges and dangers associated with the work are part of the same questions of why and how UVM should be executed. The meeting attendees indicated there will be a change in the future in which UVM will provide more benefits to society related to arboriculture and urban & rural forestry. It was recognized by several that education, knowledge, research and development, and experience are vital to the future of the industry. Perhaps, the most interesting survey and discussion discovery was the relative importance of UVM to the future of society’s engagement with the environment.

This article was published in the January-February 2017 issue of the Utility Arborist Newsline.