Arboriculture is a highly rewarding profession with multiple career paths, all of which involve looking after the health and well-being of trees. It is a career with global opportunities. Wherever trees grow, there is a community of arborists.
A person who will be a successful arborist respects trees, enjoys spending time outside, is conscientious about safety, and is dedicated to lifelong learning. Tree care experience, when combined with education, can eventually lead to research, management, training, sales, consulting, and more. All advanced arboriculture positions require a mix of experience and education.
Choosing a Sector
Arborists can be found in the commercial and residential, municipal, and utility areas. These areas highlight which types of clients you will work with as well as your future career path.
Commercial & Residential
Commercial and residential arborists work with clients who have a varying amount of trees in their care, such as campuses, parks, hospitals, and residential homeowners. These roles involve planning for and delivering professional tree care and maintenance. A commercial and residential arborist may eventually move to a management position, become a safety coordinator, work in sales, or even own their own tree care business.
Municipal arborists are responsible for the long-term care and management of city trees. Municipal work is carried out in accordance with an urban forestry management plan or strategy. Outdoor duties include planting, pruning, protection, and removal programs for public trees and associated vegetation. Municipal arborists are also involved in budget preparation and interaction with the local community, politicians, and other agencies. Municipal activities often encompass multi-disciplinary activities such as forestry, ecology, hydrology, atmospheric science, energy, and stormwater control.
These arborists work on electric overhead utility lines. They are responsible for all vegetation management programs, such as electrical line clearance, tree maintenance, and advising clients on planting in areas near power lines. Utility professionals are typically referred to as system foresters, system utility arborists, or urban forestry specialists. Depending on the size of the utility company and its vegetation management program, several utility arborists may be working in the program and across a designated geographical area.
Starting in Arboriculture
In the early stages of an arborist's career, gaining practical experience is a tremendous grounding and educational component. You must also pursue formal education if you wish to advance beyond an entry level position.
The entry arboriculture position is called a ground worker. The role of ground worker provides training and practice as a tree climber and aerial lift operator. Even if you intend to enter a position that does not involve physically working with trees, the experience of groundwork and climbing will grant invaluable insight. Ground worker responsibilities generally include the following:
- Assisting climbers
- Chipping brush
- Cutting wood
- Site cleanup after tree care operations
To be a ground worker, you'll need a high school diploma or equivalent. A commercial driver’s license, or the ability to obtain one, is also recommended, as it may be a requirement for certain companies. For municipal groundwork, you may need a state pesticide applicator license or the ability to gain one. Before you begin work, you should be trained in the following areas:
- General work site and personal safety
- Chain saw use and safety
- Selection and use of appropriate PPE
- Vehicle safety, safe operation, and safe driving
- Chipper use and safety
- Electrical hazards training
- Emergency procedures
- Hazard recognition
- Back injury prevention
- An understanding of work orders and plans
- Basic knots and rope operation for rigging
- Job briefings
- Orientation to the tree care profession
- Proper equipment use and maintenance
- Pruning principles and techniques
- Tree identification
Ground workers usually progress to the position of climber, aerial lift operator, or other advanced maintenance positions. Some ground workers begin in one area, such as commercial and residential, and later move horizontally to another area, such as utilities.
Advancing Through Education
Many advanced positions, such as Municipal Arborist/Forester or Utility Arborist/Forester, require a college degree in addition to several years of experience.
Advanced arborists may have the following degrees:
- Horticulture - the science of plant cultivation. In particular, horticulturists care for and propagate ornamental plants. A horticulture professional may be in charge of gardens, nurseries, parks, or roadside greenery.
- Forestry - focuses on managing forests for human benefit. Rather than focusing on individual trees, a forester is concerned with the overall health and status of a forest. A forester must oversee the usage of a forest to meet short-, medium- and long-term goals, which could include recreational activities, timber production, or wildlife habitat and conservation.
- Landscaping - typically covers the basics of plant science and propagation, irrigation and drainage, soil testing, and landscape design. Landscape managers and landscape architects design or maintain outdoor landscaped areas such as parks and gardens.
- Other related degrees: Dendrology, Plant Physiology, Botany, and Natural Resource Management.
The ISA maintains a database of colleges that offer arboriculture-related degrees.
Need a scholarship? Scholarships are available from the TREE Fund.
Building Your Reputation
As you gain experience, it's important to build long-term relationships with employers, coworkers, and clients who can recommend your work. Work references and testimonials are essential to gaining employment or winning contracting bids. In addition, these contacts will serve as evidence of previous experience that you can submit to the ISA when applying for your certifications.
Networking with other arborists can help you meet experienced professionals who can offer advice, refer clients, or connect you with employment opportunities. Your PNW-ISA membership can help you become involved in the arboriculture community. The PNW-ISA Annual Training Conference in particular is a wonderful opportunity to meet and network with other green industry professionals. You can also meet other arborists and increase knowledge by taking courses or attending tree climbing competitions.
ISA Certified Arborist
Once you have gained three years of full-time arboriculture experience, a two-year degree in arboriculture and two years of practical experience, or a four-year degree in a related field and one year of practical experience, you can become an ISA Certified Arborist.
ISA Certified Municipal Specialist or ISA Certified Utility Specialist
ISA Certified Tree Workers that are pursuing advanced careers in the municipal or utility sectors will benefit from these certifications, especially if working in a competitive area or transitioning into one of these sectors from the commercial sector.
ISA Certified Tree Worker: Climber Specialist or ISA Certified Tree Worker: Aerial Lift Specialist
ISA Certified Arborists may pursue one of two ISA Certified Tree Worker specialties, depending on whether they prefer to focus on climbing or aerial lift operation. Some arborists that work for small companies may wish to pursue both.
ISA Board Certified Master Arborist
This credential is the highest level of certification offered by ISA, and it recognizes ISA Certified Arborists who have reached the pinnacle of their profession. Fewer than two percent of all ISA Certified Arborists currently hold this certification. This certification is useful for the late stages of an arboriculture career, especially when working as a consultant.
Regardless of the career area you choose and enjoy, remaining ISA certified requires ongoing education.
For more details on careers in arboriculture, explore the ISA's interactive career flow chart.