Career boosters for arborists

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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Posted: 12/07/2018 | 0 comments

Author: Paul Elcoat

You will most often see me writing about aspects of business from the point of view of the owners or directors of contracting and consulting companies, describing the processes to help them to manage, compete and sell more effectively. This article is for the recent joiners or for those who are considering chucking in the 9 to 5 to work with trees, and flipped around, it is for the companies that want to attract and retain good people.

I work with a network of about 200 companies in the UK and a sprinkling in other parts of the world, and apart from the story about how difficult it is to sell tree work in their area, the next major problem they always talk about is how to attract and retain good people.

Rather than write this article from a company perspective, I wanted to spin it around and write it to help individual arborists who would like to advance their careers and find organisations that care about people and work quality. The arboricultural industry is crying out for good people and from my observations, there is a massive skills gap at all levels.

My definition of ‘a good person’ might include:

  • Ambitious but humble.
  • Evidence of having invested in their own future – having done interesting and positive things in their life so far.
  • Listens rather than thinks they know everything.
  • Attention given to appearance.
  • Respects others.
  • Arrives at work 5 minutes early rather than 5 minutes late.
  • Doesn’t continually forget to bring something into work – driving licence, certificates etc. Getting an arborist to ‘bring something in’ is the most frustrating thing in the world.
  • Leaves the phone in their bag rather than displaying the tell-tale signs of social media addiction.
  • Does not drink to excess and has nothing to do with drugs.

Evidence of training or skills from previous employment is a bonus but not essential

I know several great arborists who have a colourful background, including having made mistakes in the past or having spent reflection time in one of Her Majesty’s more secure properties. It is what you are now that counts: the arb industry is a lot like the French Foreign Legion in that respect.

For a career-changer or someone entering the world of work there is the opportunity to start at the bottom and develop, and there are companies all over the country that are happy to give someone that chance.

There are some wonderful opportunities in arboriculture; I am not going to pretend that it is easy to get rich as an arborist and it is really hard work, but you will meet some of the best people in the world while working in some of the loveliest places in the world. You will be a guardian of one of the Earth’s most important resources while continuing to study and progress through several diverse career paths.

It is physical, spiritual and scientific blended together with edgy banter. I have loved every minute of my many years in the industry (well, on reflection perhaps not the rainier days, assessments for chainsaw certificates or the nicks from the handsaw).

What is a good company and where do you find one?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but my suggestions are as follows …

Don’t confine yourself to working for the most local organisation – 25 minutes from home rather than 10 will significantly expand your potential employment area and most likely put you within range of some good employers.

The organisation’s employment process will be a clue as to their working standard. I would expect them to ask you for a CV or to complete an application form and then to invite you for an interview rather than just give you a job because you have knocked on the door.

Look for company certification logos on the headed paper and the email footer. The trucks will have certification badges on them.

ARB Approved Contractor
  • Arboricultural Association Approved Contractor
  • A health and safety certification such as CHAS, SMAS, SAFEcontractor, OHSAS18001 or ISO45001
  • Environmental certification – ISO14001

Look around when you visit the yard and office:

  • Is it tidy?
  • Are the trucks clean?
  • Is there a pile of filthy cups in the basin?
  • Is there a towel in the washroom and is it clean?
  • Are there safety posters on the wall?
  • Are the office staff well dressed and are they behaving in a professional manner?
  • Are the arborists in uniform? Do they look scruffy or tidy? Are they behaving like professionals or are they swearing and walking around with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths? Are they wearing safety boots while working around the trucks?
  • Do you feel looked after?

Talk to the other employees and ask about training and the sort of work that they do. Be wary of companies that ‘smash it down’

Check their social media presence to see how they look. Do the videos show them clowning around, having accidents and undertaking distasteful work or does it seem like they have a learning culture and are proud of their work standard. Look at the customer testimonials so see if you want to be associated with that feedback.

On your first day of employment, even if this is a trial period, a good company would:

  • Give you induction training using a checklist.
  • Give you a contract which tells you all about start times, payment, company-issue equipment, holidays etc.
  • Provide you with personal protective equipment including safety boots, a helmet with eye protection and ear defenders.
  • Introduce you to the team leader and explain what is expected of you.
  • If you already have your own PPE, they will check it to make sure that it is up to the job.

If on the first day you are simply told to go and wait in the truck and are then taken to site, you need to be a bit concerned

It never ceases to amaze me how many youngsters in particular are working for organisations that don’t have anything in place to protect and safeguard them, never mind develop their potential. They are simply using them for what they can give while they are still fit and healthy.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of unexpected calls I get from employees who just need a bit of unbiased advice after they have been told about us or seen me in a magazine: ‘Paul, is it OK that the boss makes me buy my own PPE? I can’t really afford it so I am just wearing my normal boots.’ ‘I am just about to get married and I can’t get a mortgage because my employer pays me half in cash and half on the books – what should I do?’

No, it is not alright! And my advice is to go and work for any one of the many really great companies all over the UK that do things right and invest in external advice and checking. Ask me and I will point you in the direction of the Contractor Directory.

Aim to be a professional from day 1 and compare yourself continually to ‘the best’. Try to decide what it is that makes them the best and emulate that behaviour or seek to learn that skill.

Professionals at all levels need support and a means to access information so all arborists should seriously consider becoming a member of an industry trade body because the benefits will certainly enhance your career prospects.

The Arboricultural Association is the UK’s industry professional body and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) is based in the US but has a very readable magazine and some very useful and prestigious qualifications which are actually accessible through the Arboricultural Association. There is also the Tree Care Industry Association, also US based, but this is more applicable to a company than an individual arborist. Early in my career I was a member of both, but I am now only a member of the Arboricultural Association as it has proved to be more relevant to me as an arborist in the UK. Membership includes a subscription to this magazine which I describe to our clients as the very best place for industry news, trends, tips and practical advice. If you want to be up to date with what is going on, then you have to read ‘The ARB Magazine’. Members can also access training courses, workshops, events, support, job opportunities, information about career paths, technical help and discounts from a range of suppliers. In my opinion it is well worth the annual fee. Another huge benefit is the networking: you will have the advantage of all of that unwritten, unadvertised information on exactly who it is good to work for, which companies are winning the contracts, which companies are sending their people on the best courses – the list goes on.

What about if you are interested in progressing up the career ladder and getting yourself into a supervisory position or perhaps you are planning your next step in education? You need to be able to ask someone what they think and then compare that to your other advice. Should I do ‘Certified Arborist’, or how about an IOSH course? If you can talk to the people who may have already made the mistakes and found the route it could save you years in learning by your own experience.

Someone joining the arb industry from a previous career can very quickly rise through the ranks in arboriculture. Ex-military is known to work well, and I can think of one former policeman that has very quickly established himself in a second career and is now enjoying the rewards that come from hard work, education and dedication.

Your network is vastly improved if you get stuck into the local or national meetings that the Association is planning. I have made loads of great friends over the years and regularly share information with contacts from all over the world. Even those people that you only spend a few minutes with in the bar at the conference or show will happily extend a handshake years later.

Life is a competition despite what they tell kids in school nowadays and at every stage there are filters to weed out the numpties.

One of my client companies ran an advert for a new manager recently; the position had a great salary and fantastic opportunities for a successful future. They eventually received three poorly written CVs and on the day of the interview, none of them turned up!

Thinking now about the next benefit of membership that isn’t listed in the brochures: It helps you to look different to the other people that might also apply for the job.

Differentiation is the key and here is my advice to get you through the filters; I shared this technique with a group of orphans in Romania a while ago and in only six months it has turned some of their lives around (the ones that could be bothered to do it). Like I said to them, success is easy, all you have to do is the stuff that most people don’t bother to do.

Write your goals and ambitions on the top of a sheet of paper then divide the paper below your thoughts into three columns. The bottom of the page is your current position. Now label each column as follows:

  1. What do I need to do to become better in my job role?
  2. What do I need to do to learn how to do the job above me?
  3. What can I do that makes me a bit different from everyone else in the same position?

Starting at the bottom of each column you must now plot your steps in order. By the time you complete this exercise you will have the tick-box plan to get to where you want to be.

Here are some examples for someone who is perhaps a junior arborist:

Column 1: What do I need to do to become better in my job role?

  • Concentrate on the detail of the job – pruning cuts, overall shape, identification including pests and diseases, the significance of what I am seeing.
  • Ask the team leader for opportunities to practise skills in different situations.
  • As I gain confidence and competence, work through the NPTC Certificates.
  • Make sure that I always fill in the LOLER [Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations] sheet properly and on time.
  • Always complete the paperwork and do it well.
  • Learn to drive.

Column 2: What do I need to do to learn how to do the job above me?

  • Find out about the team paperwork – risk assessment, wildlife disturbance assessment, the job sheet.
  • Ask the team leader to show me how to fill it all in.
  • Ask if I can be involved in the LOLER and PUWER [Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations] systems.
  • Learn about health and safety.

Column 3: What can I do that makes me a bit different?

The other columns are important, but this is the one that will really help you to get the job that you want.

  • Do interesting things so that you can contribute to conversations.
  • If you invest in your own future and arrange and fund some training and assessment for yourself, you will overtake everyone else.
  • Attend the trade shows.

My favourite interview question is …

Tell me about something interesting that you do that is nothing to do with work?

Some of the best people that I have ever placed in employment have responded with answers such as below:

  • I help to run the local branch of …
  • I help out in the tree climbing competitions.
  • I am a TA soldier.
  • I am a part-time fire-fighter.
  • I climbed to Everest Base Camp during my holidays last year.
  • I sailed through the Bermuda Triangle to see what would happen.
  • I drove an ancient VW Beatle to Turkey.

All of these things will immediately separate you from the usual story of ‘Well, I went to college and then I worked for blah blah and now I need an extra fiver a day cos I’ve bought a car.’

  • Interesting people do interesting things and I always look for signs that someone is likely to do interesting things for my company when I am speaking to potential employees.

    You may have already put the two and two together and realised that joining and playing an active role in the Arboricultural Association will tick boxes in all three columns.

    Readers of the ARB Magazine might also like to refer to my article in Issue 176, page 81 – ‘How to Get Ahead as an Arborist’. If you would like a copy please drop me an email.

    As always, I hope the information given in the article is useful.

    Best of luck.
    Paul Elcoat