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Professionalism in Arboriculture

By Brandon Gallagher Watson

 

My neighbor is a pretty smart guy. Recently, his little white terrier, Ivory, got injured and he promptly brought her to a veterinarian for care. Other than wearing “The Cone of Shame” for a few days, Ivory’s vet provided the expertise needed to diagnose, prescribe, and treat the issue. Happy to report, Ivory turned out fine. Not more than three days later, some gentlemen of questionable credentials came door-knocking through our neighborhood offering on-the-spot quotes for tree trimming. I cheerfully mentioned that I work for a tree care company and they quickly moved on to the next house. Two days later I came home from work seeing an unmarked pickup truck in front of my neighbor’s house with a climber wearing no helmet or ear protection in the tree. The ground guy, wearing shorts and tennis shoes and also no hardhat, was dragging brush back the rusty pickup. They did end up completing the job without any major safety mishaps, but the tree was left with a series of stubs and poor cuts.

I started thinking, if the same guys who showed up to offer tree trimming services arrived at my neighbor’s door moments after his dog got injured and offered veterinarian services, would he have hired them to care for Ivory? I think the answer is a resounding “Yeah, right!” regardless of how the price compared to their regular vet. I’m sure every tree care company out there has a story about losing a job to a competitor they deem less qualified but was under bid. The client didn’t see the value in paying more for greater expertise and higher quality; or, worse, didn’t even know there was a reason to. So what is the difference in the mind of the public? They demand a certain level of standards with experts in some fields, but others, like tree care, do not earn the same respect. One of the ways way can look to change this perspective is raise the level of professionalism in our industry.

Ever thought of what it means to be a “professional?” Do you consider yourself a professional? What about your competitors — do you consider all of them to be professionals? Being a professional doesn’t just mean you get paid for providing a service. The term “professional” describes the standards of education and training that prepare members of the profession with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform the role of that profession. In addition, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct enshrining ethical and moral obligations. In many industries, a formal education is required from a university or college before even being qualified to enter the profession. At that point, there may be certain standards the person must vow or “profess” to uphold, hence entering a “profession.” In the case of medical doctors, a doctorate degree from a university is required, but they must take the Hippocratic Oath as a symbol to uphold their commitment to a number of ethic and moral standards before they are considered professional doctors.

To become an arborist, there are many different avenues you can take. Although I am not aware of any school offering a degree directly in arboriculture, many seek two- or four-year degrees in the related fields of urban forestry, forestry, environmental science, horticulture, or even recreation resource management. Depending upon where you work or what position you are going for in arboriculture, a degree may or may not be required. There are many arborists I know who do not have formal degrees in the industry yet are some of the best arborists I know, proving that a degree does also not ensure or preclude professionalism. We also have industry certifications in arboriculture that, again, may or may not be required depending on the job. The International Society of Arboriculture offers the Certified Arborist exam and the Board Certified Master Arborist exam, which are probably our industry’s best-known accreditations. These designations are also recognized by the public to a certain extent, and help add a level of required expertise to our industry. In most cases, the title of Certified Arborist is a voluntary standard, although there are many employers that may require certification for certain positions. Additionally, there are frequently times where a Request For Bid or other contract work will specify that the winning applicant must be a Certified Arborist or have Certified Arborists on staff.

Arborist certification and other industry recognitions such as the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) Accreditation program are voluntary designations. There are certifications mandatory to conduct business, such as a pesticide applicators license. Certain municipalities also may require a license to conduct tree work in their community. Both of these licenses are intended to ensure those performing this type of work are adhering to a set of standard practices. Licensing is one of the ways these standards can be enforced; either follow the guidelines as they are laid out or you can lose your license and not be allowed to offer the service.

While licensing is a legally enforceable method to set professional standards, there are more voluntary ways we can ensure we are all acting under the same set of professional principals. Best Management Practices (BMPs) are established by industry experts to lay out the optimal steps for performing any number of tasks. Industry BMPs are available on topics ranging from proper pruning techniques to fertilization to planting practices. BMPs are published as booklets, and are available through the International Society of Arboriculture. TCIA has established a group of industry talent known as the Accredited Standards Committee that is charged with “developing performance standards based on current research and sound practice for writing specifications to manage trees, shrubs, and other woody plants.” They work toward agreement on many technical topics similar to the BMPs, and also set standards for management and practice for broader subjects like vegetation management and risk assessment. These guidelines are published as the ANSI A300 standards and are available to download from TCIA’s website. These publications provide an opportunity for those of us within the industry to learn what practices are considered “proper technique.” They also allow those outside our industry to request consistent bid specifications and have a standard which to evaluate quality against.

Whether industry guidelines are mandatory or not, hopefully we can all see the benefits of adhering to a high standard of tree care practice. For better or worse, we are living in a time of a more highly educated client. Not that long ago, industry expertise was available only through direct contact with an industry expert. Today, the client can look up a diagnosis or get a second opinion with the device in their pocket. Rather than make the expert less valuable, the sheer amount of information available makes our roles as experts even more important to distill and interpret the optimal solution for their problem. Thinking back to the guys with chain saws my neighbor hired, if we as a profession don’t want that to be the face of our industry, then we need to be actively educating ourselves and our clients on what standards to demand. If we hold ourselves, our competitors, and our industry to the highest standards, we can shift the client’s mindset from “anyone with a chain saw can do this” to “I need to hire a professional arborist.”

 

Brandon Gallagher Watson is creative director at Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, and is an ISA Certified Arborist (#MN-4086A).

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