Arboriculture training in Victoria, “the tail wagging the dog”

An industry perspective by Graeme McMahon

Current arboricultural training

The arboricultural qualification system for practical units in Victoria is flawed.  The units are couched in the National framework and as such it’s not unreasonable to extend my concern to the other states and territories.

There are obvious variations between training outcomes as with the standard of Registered Training Organisations (RTO’s) since the National framework was introduced. Despite improvements via Australian Skills Authority (ASQA) the current training system is still not reliably producing outcomes of suitable value to industry.

The National Framework was originally devised without properly anchoring it with industry consultation. The experience of trainers, fitness requirements of climbers and association with timber industry skills was diminished or removed.

A recent example of this systemic failure is a trainee attending a prominent Melbourne arborist course, successfully obtained a climbing qualification, including the method of “spur” climbing. Despite the student being incapable of obtaining a head high ascent on spurs and refusing to demonstrate a “self arrest” they obtained the qualification as well as” tree rescue” and are enrolled into advanced tree climbing. “Feel good” passing of low standards devalue qualifications further.

It demonstrates the “rubbery” standard sought by some chains of employment and incompetent assessing. It is not an isolated example and presents difficulties for industry and authorities. How can it be determined who is actually competent. Current qualifications are not even close to being an industry standard. Practitioners are their own worst enemy by sitting on their hands and leaving such matters to others. The absence of comment from practitioners is quickly filled by other vested interests.

I was surprised during a recent trip across the USA. I observed that they do not have a National qualifying system but rather a requirement that employers suitably train and prepare employees for their work. That burden of proof remains with the contractor following any incident or audit.

The current system in Australia after an incident has an employer proving that there was a safe work place provided; part of this ought to involve the appropriateness of any training and qualifications. Unfortunately the qualifications do not appear to be scrutinised as they should.  The employer’s defence seems unaided by the qualifications obtained.

Many contractors in Australia informally train and assess their employees, anyhow.  By adopting this approach time is minimised for training because they present in a prepared fashion. Industry like me cannot afford to send employees away to obtain experience. There needs to be an additional step to obtain competence.


Proposed trainer requirements

I suggest that, trainers and assessors for these units must be industry endorsed. Trainers that grumble about this proposal are more likely threatened by that scrutiny. In addition they ought to have industry experience with the units and scale of work to which they are authorised.

The full range of variables stated for each unit is rarely trained and assessed. Under the banner of insufficient venue or time, these are at best, scaled down or simply discussed.  The current requirement is that trainers only hold the practical qualification in which they are assessing. Without evidence of competence for that full range of variables, it is not acceptable that they assume competence in skills they themselves haven’t demonstrated.

There is a notion that an assessor is not required to be competent in the discipline they assess. The academics would say that the assessment tool itself should be robust enough to produce fair and valid results. In hazardous environments, I strongly disagree.

There is a proposal that some trainees will have to keep a record of hours they climb to accumulate experience for their qualifications. This is a step in the right direction however some may upon completion be more experienced than their trainers.

Whether working in the forest or amenity tree environments there is an exposure to many hazards. Further the hazards are subjected to continual change. Inexperience is naturally slower to recognise such safety issues in outdoor classrooms. I consider the current training outcomes to be entry level or pre- apprenticeship however the trainers must be experienced to keep the class safe.

A recently acquired qualification (void of industry work) can enable a person to become a trainer for that same qualification. It is not acceptable that such inexperience is charged with the safety for students in a hazardous environment. If we apply that same standard required for arboricultural trainers to the electrical industry it demonstrates that inadequacy. That model ought to be put to the Chief Electrical Inspector for comment.

For me I use my children as a “litmus” test, if they were subjected to such training in a hazardous workplace would I want a trainer with minimal industry experience looking after them? The answer is clear.

There has been an allowance for trainers to claim training time as “time in industry”. To the academics and those with a conflict of interest this is acceptable. My enquiries yielded that, the majority of the tree industries do not agree with this principle.

Tree Felling

Without analysing all the practical units I will choose one for this discussion, Tree Felling. There are two streams of tree felling training. Forest industries under Forest Works and Horticulture tree felling. Whilst the forest industries trainers are required to have experience, the qualification is regarded as entry level rather than an operational standard by that industry.

Key arboricultural trainers in Victoria felt that the training outcomes for forests industries were too high. Formation of the National Framework enabled the trainers of the day to form a lower standard with no requirement on their own experience or skills.

Customising the skills in this way was desirable for many trainers and large employers. The training outcomes and trainer standards were eroded. The skill “chunks” of felling a tree remain identical whether in the forest or amenity work. Producing lower standards for tree felling is not a benefit to the learner faller, industry or insurance companies.

Industry feedback

It is evident that arboricultural trainers have the flexibility to customise the units with” home spun” notions. In some units this has the effect of amplifying poor safety and training outcomes.  This issue continues to arise with a prominent Melbourne based RTO regarding tree felling.  I made considerable effort to correct the unsafe training and out of touch methods. I put the trainer involved in contact with a timber training unit to correct these basic errors. He refused to engage or change his practices. His RTO paid lip service to my pleas however these practices continue today.

Their response clearly demonstrates how out of touch RTO’s can be and worse, their insulation from industry guidance. The above is a great example why trainers/ RTO’s must not, be able to represent industry. It is a direct conflict of interest.

Tree felling emerges throughout the practical units and industry work. If training outcomes are watered down, the qualification itself and the assessors escape the scrutiny they deserve. A recent electrocution of a line clearance worker was caused by the loss of control of a tree section whilst felling it. Poor investigation and advice failed to properly address one of the core issues; the skill of tree felling and how that competency was determined.

Despite these workers attending regular refreshers the RTO and employment chain and adviser escaped proper inclusion in the scope of investigation. This placebo of a higher standard is on paper only. I question any advice that avoids inclusion from the workers it affects and is insulated from critique by industry experts. It would seem that commercial interests have the final say on matters of safety.

Common industry practice

As an “expert” witness in legal proceedings I am often asked to comment on events that were evident in relation to “common industry practice”. Underpinning knowledge formed decades ago without proper scrutiny not only erode work place safety but elongate legal processes and blur what ought to be clear decisions and understandings.

Another question asked is, “Would the incident have been avoided if the person obtained qualifications for that work. Aside from the fact that the training outcomes are entry lever rather than operational the underpinning knowledge and skills are laced with unfounded notions, poorly transferred information and international rules for climbing competitions.

The underpinning knowledge and skills need to be overhauled. Some long held passions will need to be verified with evidence rather than a “grandfather” clause on decades of hearsay. Establishing agreeable base information and standards will be very beneficial to the learner and Court time. In addition Authorities can turn, in future with confidence to the industry for guidance rather than purchase the opinion they desire.


Lessons of history

Ongoing records of accidents during tree felling earn its place as a skill needing attention. Over the years work practices have been devised to minimise accidents. Trainers wishing to ignore the “lessons of history” and adopt methods without scrutiny must be removed from their role. Improvements to the skill and training must be endorsed by evidence and sections of industry that are actively using it. The insulation sought by some arboricultural trainers from their timber industry counterparts have nurtured a difference in the skill of tree felling, which does not exist.

Attenuation of skills

Each unit has a clear description of skills required to be demonstrated to be competent.  Unfortunately they are rarely trained and assessed thoroughly. Trainees demonstrating reduced skills or substandard skills must be declared “not yet competent”. Invalid assessments erode the intended standard and create difficulties for future training requiring those units as prerequisites.

Some tree workers disenchanted with industry or unable to stay in commercial work become trainers. Some of their students repeat this path and become trainers. I am aware of a couple of trainers that have very little industry experience. Unfortunately they now prepare students for industry with their minimal industry experience and often flawed skill set.

Without the ability to demonstrate skills properly and accurately assesses, many trainees avoid conducting robust assessments. Despite methods being quite wrong the phrase I often hear is, “you will do it this way or fail your assessment”. There is no comeback if an attendee that needs the qualification for a contract. This style of assessment is a boon to employers that control the quality of training and are purchasing cheap qualifications.

Competition climbing

A number of RTO’s use competition climbing as part of their subject matter. I am unable to find competition climbing included in any of the competencies. The rules, equipment and purpose of sport climbing have a narrow focus quite removed from the requirements of acquiring skills for industry.

I recently had a casual employee come to work with no safety boots or vest. He explained that it wasn’t required during his training and then went on to argue with me regarding the need for cut resistant chainsaw pants for climbers. This focus demonstrates poor training outcomes for all concerned. I and many of my industry counterparts regard competition climbing as a time waster for trainees.

The concept of speed being applied to entry level skill acquisition beggars belief. This illustrates a shortfall with Level 4 “train and assess”. Producing skilled educators to prepare learners for potentially hazardous work requires an understanding of skill acquisition. Not all trainer applicants are suitable as trainers. The qualifying of trainers ought to consider the educational skills of trainers and RTO’s. If the RTO’s cannot embrace this deficiency they may be required to focus on skill acquisition as part of their own qualification. This would be similar to physical and outdoor educational teachers. Conducting safe and efficient outdoor classrooms is not new or by luck.


WorkSafe Victoria

Some tree company’s benefit from WorkSafe inspectors with little understanding of tree works however the general industry suffers. Enforcement and litigation unwittingly nurture costly argument of what is normal industry practice. Further blurring their valuable input, is when WorkSafe attempt to engage with our diverse industry, that contact is generally made to industry bodies. Such bodies can be laced with wrong information and low standards.  Some important underpinning knowledge and practices are the result of scant process, the whim of a select group or adopted from the rules of international climbing competitions.

Analysing current qualifications and their transferability to the “coal face” is not up to WorkSafe. Such correction and education is clearly an industry responsibility. Reform must come from the “shop floor”. Trainers, “would be” trainers and competition rules must be insulated from those processes. Those with limited exposure to works or vested interests in cheap outcomes should also have their input weighted.

Another focus for this essential reform is the decades of workers qualified by substandard educators. Some have gone on with their skills and become very competent. Others have avoided work or languished in protected academic roles and rely heavily on their misinformed training for comment. Because of this, experienced practitioners must be the dominant source for defining “standard industry practices”. Contentious information must be sorted by using an evidence based process.

Notwithstanding the difficulties described, WorkSafe and Victoria Police need to have access to industry experts to write reports regarding accidents. I am aware of a number of invalid reports causing unfair charges to be laid. One stands out; Victoria Police sought the assistance from a training provider at the time that had trained and qualified many hundreds of tree fallers.

Despite his lack of industry experience in felling trees, the report contained stinging appraisal of the tree felling prior to that fatality. Further it included an opinion of the operation of heavy machinery that he had not operated. He could not be considered an expert.

Prior to the proceedings he came with me to a logging job where I was the faller. He wanted to show that he could fell trees just as well or better than forest industry tree fallers. By the end of the day he had not successfully felled one tree. The legal system and practitioners deserve better.

If I, heaven forbid, had an accident I don’t want incompetent people like this being sought to steer proceedings. If I have done something wrong let the competent industry say so. Legal processes must be insulated passionate incompetence.

Proposed direction

Scrapping the current system is enticing but not feasible. They can still have a role for the future.

A training empire has firmly established itself. Correcting core problems amongst the RTO’s I consider a very difficult task despite ASQA making positive steps

Ensuring that the training outcomes stated in the National Framework are being achieved must be the focus. The problem for a number of trainers is they struggle to demonstrate properly the competencies to which they train. Any “grandfather” clause must not apply.

I have not found any industry climbers that regard the current training outcomes as operational competence. It is appalling that utilities and Councils use them as such. In time I believe robust legal processes will make them and training providers accountable. The question remains, how many more accidents and fatalities will it take?

My preferred direction is to retain the current National Framework and have its outcomes remain watered down. Training providers must demonstrate the standard of their touted qualifications. Common competencies like chainsaw operation must be unified with other qualifications. That ought to be thrashed between trainers for timber industry and arboriculture under the scrutiny from ASQA.

The underpinning knowledge for arboriculture is laced with decades of poor understanding and passionate claims. Placebo industry processes are often stacked to ensure preferred outcomes by the organisers.

I suggest;

  1. Regard all training outcomes under the National Framework to be “entry level or learners permits”. This will remove the need for trainees to achieve operational skills that ought to have experience to accompany them. Persons not accumulating experience in say 12 months after their qualification have that qualification expire, not dissimilar to the learners permit for drivers. This will also remove the issue of the current training system pretending to produce operational standards.
  2. Trainers must be industry endorsed and have reasonable work experience to the level and scope they are training.
  3. Trainers must demonstrate their units in a reasonable time frame. If they cannot perform some of the range of variables then it should be noted on their qualification or they are “not yet competent”.
  4. Under the scrutiny of ASQA, RTO’s must ensure that training outcomes are the same across Australia or mandate industry to address issues of the regional differences.
  5. Trainers and RTO’s cannot represent industry. Advisers employed by large business must also be accountable for their conflict of interest.
  6. Competition climbing must not be part of industry training.
  7. Continuity of tree felling between timber industry and amenity work is of a high importance. Standardising trainers may require shedding “deadwood” trainers from both. So be it.
  8. Arboriculture advisors employed to advise organisations also need to be accountable to the industry. In doing so companies cannot simply purchase cheap ineffectual advice. As a means of negotiating with WorkSafe after an incident, irrational changes are sometimes made to procedures. Such changes are often made with complete immunity to the scrutiny of the industry workers represented. WorkSafe don’t know any better and their enquiries to current industry bodies may produce a similar poor result.
  9. Improve accident investigation and ensure transparency to the sources of information and training. This will assist to make accountable the chain of responsibility between employer and trainer.
  10. The jurisdiction of Safe Work Australia and WorkSafe Victoria must be addressed. Issues like the “riding” of a crane hook have become political footballs between States, Territories and Safe Work Australia. National Competencies, even entry level, fail with this turmoil.



Arboriculture Training in Victoria
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