Arborists are like tree doctors because they’re responsible for the care and maintenance of individual trees. If you’re thinking about working in arboriculture, you may be asking: what is an arborist and what do they do?
Arborists are sometimes called tree trimmers or pruners, or tree surgeons.
Depending on level of work experience and education, an arborist may be responsible for trimming and pruning trees, applying fertilizers and pesticides, and ensuring trees don’t interfere with roadways, structure, and utility lines.
Highly experienced arborists may be responsible for identifying and diagnosing tree diseases and other damages trees may have and figure out solutions to address these issues.
What is an Arborist?
An arborist is a professional that cares for and maintains the health of individual trees in the field of arboriculture. Arborists take care of individual trees, rather than groups of trees or forests.
Arborists, also called arboriculturists, are important because they help maintain the health of trees in a variety of environments. Some arborists may work with private landowners to install, transplant, remove, or trim trees and shrubs for aesthetic or safety purposes.
Municipalities hire arborists to take care of trees in towns and cities. Trees that line streets often promote the attractiveness of an area.
Trees and shrubs are not only planted for aesthetic purposes in urban areas. They’re also beneficial to public health and the environment.
Some benefits that urban forests provide include:
- Erosion prevention
- Absorption of carbon dioxide
- Absorption of stormwater runoff
- Oxygen production
- Provide shade to buildings and block winds
- Provide habitat for wildlife
Arborists are essential to keeping individual trees healthy and promoting tree sustainability. Without arborists, individual trees wouldn’t receive the proper care needed to fully develop and live long, healthy lives.
The basic responsibilities of an arborist include planting, transplanting, removing, and protecting trees. They also find solutions to address problems trees may have, such as damage or disease.
What Do Arborists Do?
Arborists have many different responsibilities that vary based on level of experience, formal training or education, and location. There are different types of arborists that specialize in certain areas of tree care or industries, which can influence their responsibilities.
Entry-level arborist careers typically involve basic tree care and maintenance. Some responsibilities a beginner arborist may have on a daily basis include:
- Trimming trees and shrubs for aesthetic or safety reasons
- Pruning trees to get rid of dead or damaged branches to promote individual tree health
- Plant trees and monitor their development
- Remove and haul away tree stumps
- Respond to downed tree emergencies during thunderstorms
- Apply fertilizers and pesticides to protect and promote the health of trees and shrubs
Master arborists are highly trained professionals that may have more responsibilities. Arborists who have years of experience in arboriculture may take on project management duties and oversee a team of arborists and other tree maintenance workers.
Highly experienced arborists may have a combination of years of work experience and formal training or education in arboriculture.
Arborists with formal training or a diploma in arboriculture may possess education qualifications needed to perform the following duties:
- Identify types of trees and suitable conditions needed for specific trees
- Assess trees and soil conditions for damage and/or diseases
- Diagnose tree diseases
- Consult with other arboriculture professionals and clients on tree care services and maintenance
- Maintain records of trees being cared for
- Identify trees that display potential hazards
- Create plans and implement solutions to address tree illnesses and hazards
College-based training in arboriculture can introduce you to various scientific and technical topics related to the field, such as the science of planting and caring for trees.
Arborist certification and licensure options are available to advance in the field of arboriculture.
Types of Arborists
There are several types of arborists that specialize in different areas of tree care and maintenance.
Some specialize in working in urban environments, while others specialize in performing specific duties while out in the field.
A utility arborist is responsible for caring for trees in a utility environment. Utility arborists are considered advanced professionals in the field of arboriculture because some responsibilities they have are very technical.
Overall responsibilities fall under utility vegetation maintenance, which can include the following duties:
- Finding suitable areas to plant trees that don’t interfere with power lines or wires
- Following safety procedures and protocols when working on trees near utility lines
- Pruning and trimming trees so branches don’t interfere with utility lines
- Consult with utility professionals about trees that can be planted near utility lines
Arboriculture professionals may coordinate with electric utility companies and utility arborists to determine suitable environments for individual trees.
Utility arborists need to take the full development of specific types of trees into consideration when planting, transporting, or removing trees near utility lines. These professionals may also respond to emergencies during storms related to downed utility lines caused by fallen trees or branches.
A background in electric distribution and utility systems can be useful if you want to become a utility arborist.
A municipal arborist specializes in tree care and maintenance for municipalities. These professional arborists may work directly for a municipality.
Municipal arborists also work for landscaping services or are self-employed. A municipality may hire municipal arborists as contract employees to take care of trees in the city or town.
Some responsibilities a municipal arborist may have include:
- Create and implement tree planting or removal plans for a city or town
- Coordinate with local governments to carry out tree care and maintenance projects
- Assess man-made infrastructure and environmental conditions in a municipality to determine suitable tree growth conditions
- Coordinate with local governments to come up with a budget for tree care and maintenance services
A municipal arborist is one of the professionals responsible for planting and maintaining the trees and shrubs you may see around your city or town on public lands.
They may coordinate with grounds maintenance workers and landscape architects to find suitable areas to plant or transplant trees and shrubs.
Some arborists specialize in climbing trees, while others spend most of their time on the ground. Climbing arborists are trained to climb and perform tree maintenance high in trees.
Tree climbers with a certain amount of experience in climbing and arboriculture may seek an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certification as an ISA Tree Worker Climber Specialist.
In the field of arboriculture, professionals comfortable with heights are essential for performing tree care duties in the upper parts of trees that can’t be reached on the ground.
Climbing arborists need to be knowledgeable on topics relating to tree care in the air, which can include:
- Tree climbing techniques
- Rope systems
- Safety procedures when performing tree care in the treetops
- Hazard awareness associated with using hand tools and power equipment
- Removing tree branches and cutting down the tops of trees
Climbing arborists typically need to complete formal training in aerial rescue, CPR, and first aid prior to employment. Some states may require climbing arborists to obtain certification or licensure.
A consulting arborist serves a wide variety of duties relating to tree care and maintenance, including the administrative side of things.
Consulting arborists understand the aspects of arboriculture and use their knowledge to consult with other professionals.
Some responsibilities a consulting arborist may have include:
- Advising various clients on trees and tree care
- Assessing and diagnosing tree diseases
- Participating in forensic investigations involving individual trees and shrubs
- Coordinating tree health education programs
- Appraising trees and shrubs
Consulting arborists may work with businesses, contractors, municipalities, and other clients to advise them on various tree care, disease prevention, and tree planting or transplanting procedures.
A master arborist is generally the highest level you can advance to as an arborist. Master arborists have years of experience under their belt. Many also have some level of formal training or education.
To be recognized as a master arborist, many professionals seek certification and become an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist. This certification requires more prerequisites compared to a Certified Arborist credential.
Master arborists understand all aspects of arboriculture and have the qualifications needed to supervise and manage a team of arborists. Some may start their own tree service company or serve as a project manager in the field of arboriculture.
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Where Do Arborists Work?
Arborists usually spend most of their time working outside. Some arborists may spend some time in an office, but a large part of their job consists of fieldwork.
Some places where you can gain experience as an arborist include:
- Tree service companies
- Tree Nurseries
- Landscaping companies
- Local and state government (parks and recreation)
- National Park Service
- Pest control services
- Golf courses
Local and state governments may employ arborists directly or hire companies or individuals as contract employees to provide tree care services.
Landscaping companies work with arborists to ensure that trees are planted and transplanted in suitable locations for safety and aesthetic purposes. Pest control services may hire arborists to assess pest problems in trees and shrubs and apply appropriate pesticides to protect trees.
Although arborists specialize in the care of individual trees, they may work for the Department of Forestry to assess the health of individual trees in a forest.
How to Become an Arborist
There are a few different paths you can take if you’re interested in becoming an arborist. Some arborists start out by working an entry-level job as a grounds maintenance worker to learn the ropes of caring for plants and trees.
Many entry-level jobs in the field of arboriculture can help you develop on-the-job training.
The minimum education requirement to become an arborist is typically a high school diploma or equivalent. However, some employers and states may require some formal training or higher education.
These are some basic steps you can take to become an arborist:
- Graduate from high school or complete a GED program
- Gain experience in the field of arboriculture by working an entry-level position
- Pursue an associate’s degree in arboriculture or similar field (optional)
- Pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher in arboriculture or similar field (optional)
- After gaining work experience and completing any required formal training, seek certification or licensure from a reputable organization or association (may be required or optional depending on where you live)
If the state you live in requires certification or licensure to become an arborist, a certain amount of professional work experience and formal training may be required. For example, Maine and Connecticut require professionals to be certified or licensed to work as an arborist.
Some states require arborists to be licensed in order to apply certain pesticides to plants and trees.
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What Do You Learn in Arboriculture Degree Programs?
Pursuing formal training or higher education may help speed up the process to become an arborist.
While on-the-job training is very important, you can learn more about the field of arboriculture and potentially gain a higher-leveled position upon completing a certificate or degree program. Earning a degree in arboriculture may also give you more career options in the field.
Some colleges may offer arboriculture programs, while others offer programs in forestry, environmental science, horticulture, and similar areas of study.
Associate’s Degree in Arboriculture
An associate’s degree typically takes two years to complete and consists of general education and major coursework in arboriculture.
An associate’s degree in arboriculture can introduce you to the basic aspects of arboriculture and forestry.
Some topics you may study in an arboriculture program at the associate’s degree level include:
- Tree and plant identification
- Use of various hand tools and power equipment pertaining to tree care
- How to properly trim and prune trees and shrubs
- Aesthetic landscape designs and landscaping techniques
- Tree pests and diseases
Some colleges may offer arborist internship or apprenticeship opportunities after completing the program.
Bachelor’s Degree in Arboriculture
A bachelor’s degree in arboriculture studies topics a little more in-depth than at the associate’s level. This degree option usually takes four years to complete.
Some colleges offer arboriculture as a minor to supplement a major in environmental science, forestry, or similar area of study.
Some topics you may study at the bachelor’s level include entomology, soil science, tree diseases, landscape management, plant biology, and urban forest management.
Graduate Degrees in Arboriculture
Arboriculture programs may be offered for master’s degree or PhD programs, but they’re usually offered as a concentration rather than a major.
Graduate degrees in forestry cover important topics in arboriculture, such as the structure and development of trees, invasive species, and landscape management.
At the graduate level, topics are studied much more in-depth and typically involve more research. A graduate degree isn’t required to become an arborist, but these programs offer a more specialized education experience.
A master’s degree can be useful for a job in forestry as a manager or similar leadership roles.
A PhD is heavily research-based and is more ideal if you want to become a scholar in arboriculture or forestry and work in academia.
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Some states require arborists to be licensed or certified to work, but others don’t have any licensure requirements. Arborist certifications prove that professionals have the qualifications to perform certain responsibilities as a specialized arborist.
A passing score on a comprehensive exam is usually required to receive an arborist certification.
Organizations like the ISA, Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA), and the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) offer certification exams and professional development opportunities.
Some examples of certifications for arborists include:
- ISA Certified Arborist – This is the basic certification for arborists that’s typically required before pursuing a more specialized credential. It demonstrates one’s ability to perform tree care and maintenance. Some states may require this credential to be an arborist.
- ISA Certified Arborist Utility Specialist – Arborists who specialize in utility vegetation management may seek this certification. Some topics the exam covers include electrical knowledge and electric utility pruning.
- ISA Board Certified Master Arborist – The ISA recognizes this as the highest level of certification an arborist can achieve. Earning this certification demonstrates that an arborist is an expert in the field and has more in-depth knowledge of arboriculture subjects.
- ASCA Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA) – Consulting arborists can become an RCA to demonstrate their technical skills and ability to provide educated opinions on tree care.
There are some work experience and/or education requirements to receive certification.
For example, the ISA requires arborists to have at least 3 years of full-time arboriculture work experience or a combination of education and work experience to sit for the ISA Certified Arborist exam.
Specialized arborist certifications may require more work experience or education depending on the organization and type of certification.
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Is being an arborist a hard job?
Being an arborist can be difficult because of the conditions arborists typically have to work in. Arborists mostly work outside, primarily from spring to late fall.
Arborists also deal with hazardous conditions, such as being hoisted high in trees, working near live utility wires, and using power equipment.
Is arborist a good career?
An arborist can be a good career for anyone who’s interested in caring for individual trees and shrubs.
You might enjoy a career as an arborist if you like learning about different trees, tree diseases, and tree care methods.
Becoming an arborist might not be ideal if you’re terrified of heights and unwilling to climb trees, but there are some types of arborists who don’t climb.
How much do arborists make?
Arborist salaries can vary depending on the specific job title, location, and amount of experience and education.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) places arborists under grounds maintenance workers as tree trimmers and pruners.
Based on BLS data, tree trimmers and pruners earn a median annual wage of $47,080
Is an arborist the same as a tree surgeon?
Tree surgeon is often used as another term for an arborist. While arborists can be tree surgeons, not all tree surgeons are arborists.
An arborist typically has a better understanding of the health and development of trees. Tree surgeons specialize in cutting, trimming, and pruning trees based on information provided by arborists.
What is the difference between a forester and an arborist?
An arborist is responsible for the care of individual trees, while foresters are responsible for the maintenance of groups of trees or forests. Foresters typically assess the health and development of groups of trees as one collective unit.
Arborists and foresters can also have different work environments. Most foresters are employed by agriculture and forestry support activities and state and federal governments.
Urban foresters are similar to arborists because they specialize in the maintenance of groups of trees in urban areas.