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

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Where are all the arborists?

Author:  CTC Recruitment
  22/03/2023
Last Updated:  22/03/2023

The Association is acutely aware of the succession crisis in our profession and is deeply concerned about where the next generation of arboriculturists is coming from, and how we can ensure that generation is more representative of the communities they live and work in.

Succession is specifically referenced in our Strategic Plan 2022–24 as being an issue we need to address, and we are soon hoping to organise a meeting of key stakeholders to start the conversation about where we are at the moment, where we want to be – and how to get there. We know that this is a topic of interest to many of our members and we were therefore very pleased to receive the following article from Beccy Blackman and Kate Holbrook at CTC Recruitment, which makes some interesting points about one part of our industry.

If any readers have thoughts or ideas about the succession crisis in arboriculture then I would be very interested to hear from you – please email me at john@trees.org.uk.

Have you asked this question over the last few years? This tends to be the first thing employers ask us when they are driven to the point of contacting us for help with a difficult-to-fill vacancy.

Are there really fewer people working in our industry today or is this a misperception and they are all hiding in plain sight? Is there a structural change that is making filling job vacancies more difficult? Whatever is happening out there, it has become harder to fill arb vacancies and we know from talking to employers across the country and internationally that this is becoming a real problem. What are the factors causing this and what can we do to address them?

At CTC Recruitment (CTC R) we speak to hundreds of arborists and employers each year and from this unique perspective we want to shed some light on what we think are the pertinent issues affecting this apparent skills shortage and what can be done about it. Our opinions have been fed largely by varied conversations we have had with people throughout the industry, and in order for this to be an effective tool to initiate change, we invite all readers and stakeholders to feedback to us with their ideas and opinions via the link at the bottom of this article.

The changing training landscape

Traditionally the industry has been fed by colleges which have turned students out with competency-based certificates which have made them instantly employable, albeit lacking in work experience. Has this changed? We think it has. For example, 10 years ago Merrist Wood College in Guildford had a waiting list of candidates wanting to take the Tree Surgery for Craftsmen course and we would signpost interested newbies in this direction, knowing that they wouldbe in our market relatively quickly. When an associate of CTC R signed up for this course in 2001 there was a waiting list of one year and it cost £780 to include tickets – £1638 in today’s money (Hargreaves Lansdown Inflation calculator). This has now risen to £4800, and there are circa two courses per year. This price increase is clearly not just inflationary, and we understand that the reasons for this rise are based around the mandatory increased ratio of tutor to students. Similarly, elsewhere in the south-east, Capel Manor would also turn out students with competency certificates 10 years ago but fast forward to 2022 and the students need to fund the competency certificates themselves. It would be helpful to establish if this is happening in arb colleges elsewhere, so any arb tutors and admissions officers reading this, please do feedback about the take-up of your arb courses.

The previous examples illustrate price increases that may have affected the take-up of college courses and the subsequent drop in ‘instantly employable’ arborists. At the same time, there has been an increase in private training providers who run short courses which enable candidates to enter the industry with competency certificates. These courses tend to range over one to four weeks and at the time of writing, one provider was offering an intensive four-week course for just under £3600 which will turn you out as a ticketed aerial arborist. People interested in entering the industry later on in their career use these training companies as they allow them to qualify relatively quickly and enable them to continue working in their previous role until a job offer comes up.

Another alternative to the traditional college route is the Arborist Apprenticeship scheme. This has only been running for circa four years, so it is probably too early to draw any conclusions about the boost in numbers to the labour supply yet, but it ought to have a positive long-term effect.

Has this change in training provision kept the numbers the same? In considering how best to answer this we wondered if the numbers of candidates gaining certificates in ground use and aerial use of a chainsaw have fallen over the last 10 years, so we have contacted City & Guilds to have a look at their statistics. At the time of writing we are waiting for these figures and hope they will give more clarity to the above picture.

Days worked per week in arb Are you happy with the number of days you work?

Employed or self-employed

If the numbers entering the industry are not the reasons for the perceived shortage, perhaps where the candidates are gaining employment has changed? Whilst the number of candidates signing up with us to look for employment has remained steady, the lure of self-employment is increasingly a negative influence on filling vacancies. On many occasions a successful job offer has fallen through because the arborist feels they are being short-changed and that the salary on offer is just not comparable to self-employment; the self-employment ‘headline’ earnings look so much better than the equivalent PAYE option with the added attraction of being their own boss and working the hours that they want.

Additionally, the shorter working week is a pull. We recently conducted a questionnaire to find out how people wanted to work. We asked our friends on Arbtalk about this and the 60 people who replied said they worked generally more hours than they wanted to but satisfaction levels were fairly high and that the consensus was that three to four days per week was the optimum. This is not generally an option in full-time employment.

Self-employment is not a new factor in our industry and given the cost burden to employers caused by employers’ National Insurance, holiday pay and pension contributions, it is understandable that both the employer and the worker do continue to engage in this way. However, if a company is wanting to fill a full-time PAYE vacancy this culture does make it more difficult; an employed arborist will not easily recognise that they are in fact as well off as the self-employed arborist and this makes it almost impossible for the employer to offer the perceived right wage for the job. Additionally, a large proportion of new candidates who have entered our workplace as a second career do so because they see self-employment as an advantage – for example, the ex-Army arborists who have invested their retirement training fund in gaining their arb qualifications with self-employment as their end game.

The rules of engagement regarding self-employment for tax purposes have changed over the last 10 years in so much as there is now a questionnaire on the HMRC site which enables all employers (and workers) to take the test to check that they are engaging legitimately (CEST – check employment status for tax test), and where workers fit the profile, employers are able to engage arborists in this way. Therefore, whilst self-employment does decrease the number of arborists looking for full-time permanent employment, it does not reduce the number of arborists at large in the industry.

Could more arborists be setting up on their own and trading as a sole trader or limited company? There is not space to discuss the regulations, or lack of them, within our industry in this article but we are aware from the many varied conversations we have had with our industry associates that the opportunity for members of the public to engage the services of chainsaw operatives who are not required to be part of an approved industry body reduces the market available for the companies that are doing things compliantly and makes margins much harder to achieve – particularly if higher wages are required to be paid to keep their arborists on board. There has been a study of how many people are working in arb (BALI [British Association of Landscape Industries], 2019) but this does not reflect the whole picture as it does not include numbers on the ‘grey’ market and this will be a difficult figure to ascertain as, due to lack of regulations, there is no requirement for this to be recorded anywhere.

Heading abroad?

Are our UK trained arborists leaving the country to work abroad? This has always been a factor and whilst Brexit and Covid have put the brakes on it to a certain extent, employers on the continent are still able to employ UK arborists, although there is a lot more red tape to go through. This has a cost impact on the employers (as opposed to pre-Brexit for European employers) and does mean that in real terms the numbers working abroad have fallen. This will sort itself out in the long term and we believe this to be a positive thing; it is a great benefit to everyone to operate in an industry that allows you to work abroad as your skill is in demand and this helps us to encourage young people to enter arb as a career choice. To sweeten this pill, it may help UK employers to know that we get a lot of enquiries from international companies who all cite the same issues: it is increasingly difficult to fill vacancies and can we help?

How did you find your career in arb?

Career of choice

How did the arborists currently working in our industry, hear about their job? We think this is the key to how we are going to increase the numbers of career arborists entering the industry and it is a question we’ve done a bit of research into. It’s more likely that you heard about the role from friends or family than any other way (52% in a poll of 50 arborists on social media in November 2022 – quick and dirty but an indication nevertheless). It’s highly unlikely that you heard about it from a careers advisor (0% in that survey).

We feel strongly that arboriculture should be promoted as a career choice within schools and not just as an option for those who are not geared to academic courses. It is a fact that the green industries are a popular route that schools point these students to and this has been further corroborated in a survey donated to our research by Georgie Husher (ABC Lv 4 Dip Arb, FdSc Arb, BSc (Hons) Arb and Urban Forestry) who compiled it as part of her dissertation. A quarter of the 411 arborists Georgie asked said they had a diagnosed or suspected learning disability.

What can we all do about increasing the profile of arboriculture as a distinct industry and a clear career choice for young people considering their working future? Definitely getting schools on board with careers advice is a big part of changing things and we are currently talking to schools’ careers advisors about how we can do this – maybe a short video featuring a typical ‘day at the office’ for an arborist might be what’s needed at this level? It would be great to get arboriculture in the line of sight of the general public, through TV or media. For example, circa five years ago a character in The Archers became an arborist (if only more young people listened to The Archers!). Similarly, an arborist was featured on The Apprentice. This is all good PR for our industry as it might make young people (or their parents) aware that there is a job out there where you can climb trees for a living. Another great example of this is the recent film made by the Canopy Climbing Collective (link at the bottom of this article) which is a fab piece to share.

Spread the word

Do you have any ideas? It’s in all of our gift to spread the word further. If you don’t already visit your local secondary school for a career’s presentation, perhaps you would consider it or spread the word about arb in some other way?

All of the conversations we have had in the process of considering the above have made us aware that people are collaborating in the industry to make things happen. There seem to be distinct groups, conversations, cultures and opinions in arboriculture in places like the Arboricultural Association, Arbtalk, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. so we are clearly good at talking to each other. We need to turn the conversation outwards to share the industry with those who don’t already know about it.

In our discussions above, we have identified factors which we think are influencing the ability of companies and local authorities to fill full-time arborist vacancies – the supply side issues as we see them. We think that the answer in the long term is to work on the promotion of arboriculture to the general public in as many diverse ways as possible. From employment to end-user, better visibility and a wider understanding of the industry can only help the situation. Ultimately if we can all help to get more young people excited about arboriculture and nurture their interest in a rewarding, outdoor career path, it should become easier to fill those vacancies.

Scan the QR code to join the coversation

We’d love to hear your thoughts so that we can collate them and share the discussion further. Scan the QR code or follow this link to join the conversation: www.ctcrecruitment.co.uk/news/news/aa-magazine-feedback-link

Beccy Blackman and Kate Holbrook

Beccy Blackman and Kate Holbrook, CTC Recruitment.

Links

BALI survey link: www.bali.org.uk/help-and-advice/documents/subsectorreport-arboriculture/subsector-reportarboriculture-final-291019.pdf

Canopy Climbing Collective, Chasing Adventure: The Arborist link: youtu.be/oMob7Gp1fzw


This article was taken from Issue 200 Spring 2023 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.