Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Tree Planter Training 20 - Wrap Up

Although this blog is predominantly focused on my music and DJ’ing career, I also want to share some information about my other career:  Canadian Reforestation.

The information in this post is part of a training series from the website.  More information can be found at this link:

I’ll put the text and audio download link from this training module below, but let’s start with the YouTube video for the module:

Section 20 - “Wrap Up”

Congratulations, you've reached the end of our tutorial series.  We've covered a lot of material.  I know that it probably didn't all sink in, but at this point, you should have a solid grounding of what the tree planting industry is all about, and a broad foundation upon which to build further knowledge.

Reviewing all of this material has probably really opened your eyes.  When you first heard about tree planting, you probably got a mental image that involved a lot of manual labour, and not much thinking.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  If tree planting was an hourly wage-based job, that stereotype would probably be a correct perspective.  But tree planting is not paid hourly, it's paid by piece rates.  The more productive you are, the more money you make.  Because of that, it's in your best interest to learn, study, practice, and refine your techniques, to make yourself as fast and efficient as possible.  The piece-rate nature of the industry has turned it into a very intellectual exercise, where the smartest planters can leverage their knowledge into money.

The amount of information in these tutorials has probably been overwhelming for you.  At this point, you've been inundated with lots of facts, suggestions, and terminology, and I have no doubt that you probably don't remember more than a third of it all.  Once you've been planting for three or four weeks, I'd recommend that you review some of the key material again, particularly the sections about employment standards, common BC coniferous trees, spacing/density/excess, and maximizing productivity.  You might even want to review the complete series again before the start of your second season.

Field Practice

It's time now for you to go to the field and start doing some hands-on practice.  Your instructor will walk you through the basic steps of planting once again, and you'll start to get a feel for the repetitive motions that are required to plant a tree properly, with acceptable quality.  Start slow.  Focus on getting it right, not getting fast.  For about a week to two weeks, planting is going to feel awkward.  You're going to look at experienced planters around you, and wonder how they can do it so quickly.  You're going to feel like a failure, because you can't keep up.  Don't worry, this is normal.  As you're getting started, just focus on planting each tree properly, and don't worry about your paycheque.  Once you get the basics down, your foreman will talk to you and start encouraging you to speed up, and will give you tips on where to shave a few seconds off every tree.  You'll probably want to quit at least once, or several times, but stick it out.  I promise, it gets easier.  If you can promise yourself that you won't quit for one calendar month, you WILL get over the hump and you'll get to the point where you're starting to make respectable wages, and you'll feel like planting is natural.  I won't go so far as to say that it'll become easy, because you'll always be pushing the limits, but it won't feel impossible.

During your first few weeks, keep careful records of your daily production, earnings, and portal-to-portal hours.  Remember, your company must top you up to minimum wage (including applicable overtime equivalents) on each paycheque in which you didn't earn the equivalent through your piece-rate tree prices.  If your company is short-changing you, continue to keep very detailed records all season.  Once the season is over, you can take advantage of help from the Employment Standards Branch to resolve any discrepancies, without having to worry about the risk of getting fired.

To get better, you need to practice.  The more trees you plant, the faster you get.  That seems to be a ridiculous statement, because it's so blatantly obvious, but your speed increases only as you reach more milestones.  Let me put it this way.  Let's say that by the time you plant fifteen thousand trees, you'll be able to plant fifteen hundred trees per day in easy ground.  That seems like a good goal.  So the trick is to plant your first fifteen thousand as quickly as possible, which gets you to that point of being a 1500-per-day planter.  This means that during your crucial first couple of weeks, you need to keep your head down and keep moving.  Don't give up and come back to the cache and sit for 45 minutes for lunch.  Grab a quick bite, and get right back to work.  The day doesn't pass any more quickly if you're sitting down, and it doesn't go any faster depending on whether you're happy or miserable.  You don't make any money when you're not planting.  If you're stuck out on the block for ten hours, you may as well be making money during that time, so don't stop working.

Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule?  It was written by Malcolm Gladwell in a book called Outliers.  In it, he said that anyone who practiced 10,000 hours at a skill would essentially become a professional, and master that skill.  In an average long tree planting season in the BC Interior, a planter may work or "practice" for a thousand hours.  To clarify, I'm including some non-planting time in that total, but time spent after dinner or around a campfire discussing ways to improve your planting techniques can still lead to self-improvement.  So if we assume that the rough number of a thousand hours per season is valid, then you're looking at approximately ten years before you put in your 10,000 hours.  That's ten years before you become a tree planting "professional."

The learning curve for tree planting never really stops.  You might think at the end of your first season that you've learned it all.  You haven't.  You'll learn many more things in your second season.  The same will happen in your third, fourth, fifth, and sixth years, and beyond.  At the end of each of those seasons, you'll think you've finally mastered everything there is to know.  You haven't.  You'll continue to learn new tricks, and become more efficient, for your entire career.  It doesn't matter how many seasons you plant.  I've planted for more than twenty years, and I still work as a planter on the coast every spring and fall, and I still learn new tricks and techniques every season.

Career Options

Speaking of careers, some planters think that tree planting is a short-term career which might be useful for a few years, but in the long term, it's just a temporary position until you find work in a different field.  That's going to be true for some people.  However, if you're interested in forestry, there are many career choices available that can keep you working pretty much year-round.  There's work available in stand management, such as brushing and spacing a growing stand.  You can become an accredited silviculture surveyor.  You can do office work relating to Geographic Information Systems.  You can get into mapping, or timber cruising.  Explaining all of these jobs in depth would be a complex undertaking, but if you do some research on silviculture in Canada, you'll see that planting trees is just one small but important part of the entire cycle of reforestation.  If you're interested in moving on from planting into a different field, one good option is to talk to the owner of your company.  He or she can often provide some really good insights about how to pursue your long-term career goals, and I can think of many instances when a company owner has gone out of their way to help an established planter achieve career goals that may not even be directly related to planting.

Final Advice

Good luck with your planting.  Again, if you're a first time planter and you feel like quitting at any point during your first several weeks, remember a promise that you need to make to yourself.  No matter how frustrated you get, don't quit until you've worked for a full calendar month.  You've already invested too much time and money at this point for it to make sense for you to quit now.  After thirty days in the bush, you'll have gotten over the hump, and you'll realize that you CAN be successful as a planter.

Keep track of your numbers.  I don't just mean this on a day-to-day basis, to make sure that your paycheques are correct.  I also mean to pay attention to your daily averages, and your true earnings.  Understand what your expenses are in relation to the money that you earn.  Also, remember that you may someday want to know your annual planting totals, in case you end up chasing a long-term career goal such as hitting a million trees.

Keep track of some of your block locations.  You can do this by writing down block numbers, or by using apps on mobile devices that overlay GPS coordinates on top of photos.  Save them somewhere semi-permanent.  Someday, when you're a lot older, you may want to come back and look at the trees you planted in your first season.

For further research about tree planting in BC, go to Google and look for websites about tree planting.  There are several well-known sites out there that can be invaluable resources, and lots of online communities full of tree planters.

Thanks for participating …


Here’s an Audio version of this material, in case you want to listen while you’re driving, running, at work, or otherwise unable to read or watch video:

Click on the down-arrow icon in the upper right corner of the SoundCloud widget to download the mp3.

Once again, for further information about this series of tree planter training information, visit:

I encourage you to share this information with anyone else who might be interested.  Thanks for your interest and support!

-          Jonathan “Scooter” Clark