Perched in a tree fork some 10m above the ground, wearing a multi-lined harness, earmuffs and a hard hat, James Sullivan deftly uses his chainsaw to remove a rotted branch. "It's a very satisfying job,'' he says.
With 20 years' experience, Sullivan, a climbing arborist for Australian Urban Tree Services, reckons it's a great career choice. "You get a real adrenalin rush when you push yourself, work through a challenge and get the right result,'' he says. "Working outdoors up a tree is great.''
"You can have a tree change without moving to the country,'' says Craig Hinton, senior arborist for Frankston City Council in Victoria. Years ago Hinton worked in the windowless office of a bank in the CBD until a friend told him about the arborists' course, and he decided to give it a go.
"It led me to everything I hoped for -- good honest labour in the outdoors,'' he says. After studying a diploma of horticulture specialising in arboriculture, Hinton worked for Wellington Shire in Victoria's Gippsland before returning to Melbourne in 1996 to work with the Frankston City Council as its first qualified arborist. Now president of the International Society of Arboriculture Australia Chapter (ISAAC), Hinton oversees 500 members of the national arboriculture, urban forestry and tree care industry.
"You need patience to be a good arborist,'' he says, explaining that patience is needed more in dealing with people's expectations than with trees. Arborists point out that responsible tree care is an investment, as well looked after trees are attractive and can add value to property, while poorly planned and maintained trees can be a significant liability.
Once the occupation of a bloke with a ute and a chainsaw, today most councils require that their arborist contractor have qualified and trained staff. "Unfortunately, we struggle with the fact that there are many people who think that they can trim trees and they are generally doing more damage -- and it can be incredibly dangerous,'' says Hinton.
"We always encourage people to be properly trained as trees are large, very heavy and unpredictable structures, and chainsaws can be a dangerous tool.'' The industry is generally male dominated. "When I first started, it was a lot more blokey,'' agrees Judy Fakes, head teacher of arboriculture at Sydney's Ryde College of TAFE.
"Now a lot of tree management officers in local government are women -- many come from horticulture, parks and gardens and landscaping.'' Fakes has been teaching for more than 25 years and holds qualifications in agricultural science, education, tree surgery and forestry. She has also been involved in the development of many of the TAFE NSW courses and modules which relate to arboriculture, and was involved in the development of the WorkCover (NSW) code of practice for the amenity tree industry.
"One of the best parts of my job, and a great joy, is running into past students who are now doing fantastic and interesting things,'' says Fakes. One of her past students is Karen Sweeney, city arborist for the City of Sydney.
"Initially I thought about a career in landscaping, but my heart was already in trees,'' says Sweeney, who has been an arborist for about 10 years, manages four staff arborists, around 20 contractors and is president of the Local Government Tree Resources Association. "I love local government as it's one of the best areas to be in for trees,'' she says. "You go from managing a single tree to 40,000 in streets and parks,'' she says.
"The other part I like is that there is the educating of people on the benefits of trees. We deal more with people than trees, and so you need to be a good communicator.''
Taus Bartlett also studied at Ryde TAFE and works as a bush regenerator for Willoughby Council.
Bartlett admits he has always loved hanging about in trees and reckons his background in abseiling, rock climbing and working as a ropes course facilitator in the US have been extremely useful.
"Obviously it helps to have good plant identification skills and a love of nature, rather than seeing it as something that needs to be conquered,'' he says. "In bush regeneration there are quite a lot of sensitive plants. My feeling is that a lot of the contracting arborists don't have an appreciation of the bush habitat, so I bring a different perspective,'' he explains.
"Qualified arborists are in short supply,'' says Bronwyn Castor, co-director of Tree Wise Men, which specialises in the delivery of expert arboricultural opinion and practice.
"It's extremely difficult to find good consulting staff,'' says Castor.
"They have to be able to write, have a good command of the English language, an ordered mind, think logically, an eye for detail to interpret plans and drawings, and good computer skills,'' she says.
$100k for good climbers
GENERALLY arborists specialise in either contracting or consulting. A contracting arborist will undertake the physical work such as trimming branches, and needs to be physically fit, agile and comfortable with heights and using equipment such as harnesses, helmets, ropes, anchors, pruning saws, chainsaws, and mechanical shredders.
Consulting arborists concentrate on writing reports on hazard assessments, tree audits, applications and evaluations. "You really have to want to be an arborist, as it's often hard, hot, dirty and dangerous work -- you have to really love it'', says Mark Hartley, who heads up the company The Tree Doctor. He says that Australia is well-respected in the arboriculture profession and is at the leading edge in issues such as tree moving and treating disease.
"I swore I'd never join the family business but during an argument was told `if you can do better go do it' -- then I fell in love with it. I've worked right around the globe and for a while there, 30 per cent of my work was offshore''.
Remuneration depends on experience and qualifications.
Graduates start at around $40K and a good climbing arborist can earn from $60 -$100K.
Ryde TAFE - 02 9448 6278
By Alison Aprhys, The Weekend Australian, March 24, 2007.