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How to Become an Arborist and Grow Your Career

May 26, 2023 7 min. read
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If you enjoy climbing trees, working with your hands, and spending time outdoors, a career as an arborist might be right for you.

Want to join this promising industry? In this article, we’ll cover what an arborist is, their responsibilities and salary, and how to become an arborist.

What is an arborist?

Also known as tree surgeons, arborists are professionals who keep the world’s trees strong and healthy. This is essential because trees provide clean oxygen and help fight climate change.

Arborists can work in either the private or public sector. They can be independent contractors or employees at tree care companies, institutions, or parks and urban forestry departments.

What does an arborist do?

Arborists play an important role in caring for the world’s trees. They’re responsible for both improving the appearance of the plant and caring for its overall health.

These are just some of the tasks that an arborist may need to complete:

  • Advising clients on tree varieties, maintenance, and soil and space requirements
  • Planting new trees, shrubs, and woody plants
  • Transplanting young trees, including backfilling, staking, watering, and mulching
  • Testing, monitoring, and maintaining soil conditions
  • Inspecting trees and shrubs for damage, disease, and pests
  • Assessing tree size, age, and value
  • Repairing damaged trees and treating tree disease
  • Tree pruning and trimming branches using chainsaws, hand saws, pruning shears, and loppers
  • Providing tree identification and removing dead, damaged, hazardous, and unneeded branches, trees, and shrubs
  • Grinding stumps
  • Applying fertilizer and pesticide

Some arborists specialize in certain areas of arboriculture. For example, you could focus on keeping power lines clear of tree branches, or work within a municipality to maintain trees in public parks.

What education and training do arborists need?

As a professional arborist, you’ll need to know:

  • Tree biology and tree anatomy
  • How to identify trees and assess risks
  • How to care for trees, treat diseased trees, and remove pests

Here are a few education and training options where you can get the specialized knowledge and skill set you need:

1. On-the-job training

The easiest way to start learning the arborist trade is to get your hands dirty. Apply to work at a local lawn care or landscaping company, or even a greenhouse or plant nursery.

In any of these roles, you’ll learn about identifying, pruning, and maintaining different types of trees. You’ll also learn how to interact with customers and answer questions about your work.

2. Internship or apprenticeship

Finding an internship is a great way to get hands-on, practical work experience. You’ll learn the ins and outs of the trade and gain a great reference for future employment. 

Here are a few options to get you started:

3. College or university education

You don’t always need an arborist degree to provide proper tree care services, but some employers want to hire arborists with formal education. It’s also required to attain your arborist certification.

To learn both the theoretical and practical sides of the tree care industry, get a bachelor’s degree from a respected college or university in one of these fields:

  • Arboriculture (study of tree care)
  • Biology (study of living things, including plants and animals)
  • Botany (study of plant biology)
  • Environmental science (study of the natural world and how its systems interact)
  • Forestry (study of forest growth and management)
  • Horticulture (study of growing a wide variety of plants)
  • Landscape architecture (study of land design and management)

In these programs you’ll learn about soil science, plant pathology, and forest ecology, which will help you in your career as a tree care professional.

4. Continuing education

Even for established arborists, it’s important to stay on top of your training and professional development. Take the time to invest in continuing education like:

  • Climbing training: Being an arborist is a physically demanding job. Learning basic tree climbing techniques can keep you safe and prolong your career. The Climbing Arborist has free climbing tutorials and knot tying, rigging, and rope splicing techniques.
  • Safety training: Working at heights can be dangerous, especially when you’re using sharp tools and harmful chemicals. Take a safety training course and learn how to use protective gear, avoid hazards, and handle emergencies.

You should also join community and online arborist groups, attend tree industry events, and get to know local arborists. These networking opportunities help you learn and grow as an arborist.

Do arborists need a license?

Some states require arborists to have a tree care or arborist license:

Each license comes with its own requirements, like previous experience, business insurance, passing a written exam, and paying a licensing fee.

Depending on the arborist job description, some employers may also require you to hold certain licenses. These may include:

  • Restricted Use Pesticides (RUPs) certification is required if you’ll be applying certain pesticides on the job. Contact the Pesticide Safety Education Program in your state for training materials and visit your local certifying agency to register for your exam.
  • A commercial driver’s license (CDL) is necessary if you’ll be driving a company vehicle to and from the worksite. Contact your state licensing bureau or local Department of Motor Vehicles to complete your CDL application and requirements.

What arborist certification is required?

Industry accreditation isn’t a requirement for most arborist roles. However, being an ISA certified arborist can help customers trust you and make you stand out from non-accredited arborists.

You can earn your ISA certified arborist credential by passing the International Society of Arboriculture’s certification exam. Other popular ISA certification options include:

  • Board Certified Master Arborist
  • Certified Arborist Utility Specialist
  • Certified Arborist Municipal Specialist
  • Certified Tree Worker Climber Specialist
  • Certified Tree Worker Aerial Lift Specialist
  • Tree Risk Assessment Qualification

A Board Certified Master Arborist is the highest ISA credential. Qualifying for the exam requires formal education, in-depth knowledge and experience, and related arborist credentials.

How much do arborists make?

The mean arborist salary is $47,450/year (USD). However, the annual salary of a skilled arborist can be as low as $30,650 or up to $72,370.

This amount can vary depending on factors like:

  • Industry (e.g., government, energy, home services)
  • Education and experience
  • Special licensing or certification
  • Geographic area 
  • Local demand for tree care services

The demand for arborists is set to increase by 7% by 2030 as towns and cities look to develop more green spaces. And when your skills are in demand, you may be able to negotiate a better salary.

How do I join the tree care industry?

Ready to become a full-time arborist? Write up a resume that describes your education, training, and experience, and send it to local tree care companies.

Working for an established tree care company will give you arboriculture experience and show you what it takes to be successful in your industry.

Or, if you’d rather be your own boss, you can start a tree service business yourself. With the right tree company name, an arborist business plan, and the right arborist apps, you’ll be building a tree empire in no time. 

Originally published November 2021. Last updated on May 26, 2023.

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