Trees need doctors too, and that’s where arborists come in. Arborists diagnose and treat tree conditions, including pest infestations, diseases and age-related decline. But as with human physicians, tree docs need specific training. Arborists can get education in a variety of ways, from on-the-job learning for entry-level positions to a bachelor’s degree for management jobs. Certification through trade groups is also important.
On the Job
Many arborists begin their career with on-the-job training in basic tree care. Employers teach fledgling arborists to identify and prune trees, prepare chemicals to kill pests, and handle and maintain vehicles and equipment. Plus, arborists in training learn to secure work sites and operate climbing equipment. For entry-level tree-care technicians, employers prefer candidates with a high school diploma. Training can last several months, and may culminate in teaching apprentices to climb trees to prune them. Both private companies and local public agencies offer on-the-job training.
While companies and parks departments don’t always require postsecondary education, it can help employability. Community colleges and technical schools offer two-year degrees or certificates in arboriculture or tree service. Students learn arboricultural field techniques, botany, soils, community forestry, insects and plant pathology. Some programs also require students to complete an internship of several hundred hours. Internships are designed to lead to jobs. Most employers prefer at least a two-year degree for managing arborists who care for trees, maintain chemical inventories, oversee equipment and maintain emergency procedures.
Arborists who want to direct tree-care operations as production managers typically need a bachelor’s degree in urban forestry or related major, such as arboriculture, plant science, landscape architecture or horticulture. Urban forestry programs include coursework in forest and tree biology, urban forest management, land use planning, soil science, ecology, entomology and landscape management. Plant science and landscape architecture majors take classes in plant chemistry and physiology, plant propagation, common trees and shrubs, dendrology and roots, plant diseases, integrated pest management and urban horticulture.
Arborists may need licensing and certification. Many states mandate that arborists get a license to handle pesticides and chemicals. For example, Maine requires any professional who diagnoses tree conditions or leaves the ground to prune trees to pass a licensing exam and show that she has adequate insurance. In Louisiana, arborists must pass an exam and provide a certificate of liability insurance for property damage. Employers may also require trade group certification for managing arborists. The International Society of Arboriculture certifies arborists in areas including aerial lifts, climbing, utility specialist and municipal specialist.
Trained arborists can work in a variety of fields. Commercial arborists work for homeowners, power companies and government agencies to help planners and developers protect trees on construction sites. They also serve as expert witnesses in court cases. Municipal arborists, or urban foresters, work with trees along streets, in parks and outside public buildings. Plus, they write and enforce tree ordinances, review plans for landscape projects and educate the public on tree care. Utility arborists maintain trees close to power lines and railroad rights-of-way. They test and roll out new line clearance and vegetation-control methods and educate the public about planting and trimming trees near power lines. Top employers of arborists include golf courses, parks departments, cemeteries, private tree-care companies and state agencies. Public gardens and arboreta hire tree-care specialists as well.
- Clemson University: Careers in Arboriculture
- University of Wisconsin: Arborist
- Virginia Tech: Urban Forestry and Agriculture
- Pennsylvania Landscape/Horticulture Technology
- The Land Lovers: Arborist
- The New York Times: Learning to Climb New York City’s Trees
- Maine Division of Plant Industry: Arborist Licensing