If you want to be a brain surgeon, you need to go to college — they’re pretty strict about that. If you want to be a tree surgeon, you don’t have to go to college. But you should at least know that it’s an option. There are certainly different paths to building a career in arboriculture. You can start out on a tree care crew and learn through the school of hard knocks as you work your way up in this industry — many have done just that and been very successful. But there’s another route to consider: Getting a college degree in arboriculture or urban forestry and using that education to help jump-start or advance your career.

For those interested in pursuing post-secondary educational opportunities in urban forestry or arboriculture, there are options for both two- and four-year degrees, and even some online avenues. The International Society of Arboriculture maintains a searchable online database of the various colleges offering programs in fields related to arboriculture.

We spoke to representatives at a few of these schools to get a sense of how their programs work, the topics covered, the types of students they attract and the job opportunities that await potential graduates.

Randall Swanson (kneeling at left) and students in the two-year associate degree arboriculture program at Paul Smith’s College.

Image Courtesy Of Paul Smith’s College

Different paths

One common approach among schools offering four-year bachelor’s degrees in forestry is to offer a major, or concentration, in urban forestry or arboriculture. That’s the case at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where students completing a bachelor’s degree in forestry can choose a concentration in urban forestry. “There’s about 36 hours of coursework that’s designed to prepare students for a career in urban forestry,” explains professor Hans Williams, who oversees the program.

One of the benefits of pursuing a four-year degree is that there’s time for a wide variety of coursework. At Stephen F. Austin, for example, students take courses in arboriculture and cover topics related to tree biology and tree care, including planting, pruning, structural support, and more. “Then they take urban forest management, which covers things like risk assessment, inventory, forest management planning,” says Williams. Another class covers GIS and spatial analysis using the latest mapping hardware and software. There are also several horticulture classes that cover woody landscape plant materials, turfgrass management and so on, “because many of our students now are going to work for integrated companies where they’re doing a lot of different things,” he adds.

Another requirement is a business course in human resource management. “One of the things we emphasize is that natural resource management is about people… especially in urban forestry management, you’re working every day with people of all different backgrounds,” Williams explains. These sorts of communication skills are one of the things that set college graduates apart when companies are hiring new employees, he observes. “We hope that most of our graduates will eventually get into management and get into leadership positions, and they’re going to have to deal with the human resources side of things far more than they could ever imagine now.”

Two-year schools are more likely to provide programs that focus more specifically on arboriculture. In New York, for example, Paul Smith’s College offers a two-year associate degree in arboriculture and landscape management. Randall Swanson, who heads up that program, says that about a third of the students that complete the two-year associate degree at Paul Smith’s continue on to complete a bachelor’s degree in some other field, whether that’s forestry or parks and recreation, at the school.

But Swanson notes that for some students, two years of college is preferable to four, whether it’s due to the time commitment, the cost, or for other reasons. And Paul Smith’s packs a lot into its two-year arboriculture curriculum. “We teach everything from proper tree selection, ornamental dendrology, proper planting techniques, how to deal with insect and disease problems, proper pruning techniques, how to remove trees piece by piece – the whole gamut,” says Swanson. He notes that the goal is to prepare students to work in all different aspects of the tree care industry, whether that’s as a climbing arborist or a plant healthcare specialist. Getting this broad exposure in college helps students choose which route they might want to go, he adds.

Students at Paul Smith’s are also required to take a financial accounting course and some other business electives, such as entrepreneurship. The intent of this requirement is to give students exposure to real-world skills they’ll need once they land a job or, perhaps eventually, start their own business. A capstone course on urban forestry also gives students a close look at some of the issues related to municipal forestry, including liability, inventory, as well as planning and ordinances.

The Paul Smith’s arboriculture program incorporates the ISA certification manual as a textbook. Students also take a practice certification exam, which gives them a sense of areas they need to continue to work on and hopefully gives them an advantage when they take the exam after completing the work experience requirement. This means that they have a level of understanding of ANSI and OSHA standards and regulations that few others starting out in arboriculture do..

An online option

Oregon State University offers a variety of online education options in the field of urban forestry, including a natural resources bachelor’s degree with urban forestry option, a master’s degree and a unique graduate certificate option. Paul Ries, who directs that program, says online learning is a trend that is continuing to grow. (Just in Oregon State’s E-Campus, for example, there are currently some 4,000 students pursuing online degrees, including about 500 in natural resources fields.) “Online learning opens up higher education opportunities for a great number of people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it,” explains Ries, noting that many students continue to work while they’re earning their online degree or certificate. This includes students who may have started college years ago, but stopped in order to start a business or family. “It’s very individualized and you can work through it at your own pace,” he says of online learning.

Ries, who is also a board member of ISA, points out that organization has also invested significantly in online learning and offers a variety of courses for arborists (for CEUs, not college credit). The benefit to any type of online learning is that it provides flexibility, particularly for those who are working, he says: “Nobody cares if you’re doing it at 6 a.m. in your pajamas or at 10 p.m. at night with your feet up and a glass of wine by your side.”

OSU’s graduate certificate in urban forestry is now in its third year and includes about six courses (there’s an option for the credits to later be rolled into a larger master’s degree). “It’s really designed for working professionals in the field of natural resources who want a credential that says ‘urban forestry’ on it and the experience of having completed some level of graduate school in the field of urban forestry and arboriculture,” explains Ries.

College learning isn’t all done in the classroom. Here, Paul Smith’s students get hands-on training in climbing, chain saw operation and tree planting.

Supply and demand

Those we spoke to universally said that demand from the tree care industry is very strong for students graduating with a degree. “The job opportunities are great,” says Swanson with Paul Smith’s College. He says that at career fairs, there are sometimes 15 or 16 different tree care companies there looking for perspective employees, and sometimes they’ll even hire students from the general forestry program. “These companies need people badly that they might hire someone who is getting a bachelor’s in something like ecological forestry, and then they’ll teach them the arboriculture stuff.”

“The demand is very high,” agrees Williams at Stephen F. Austin. “We have about 15 students in the concentration right now and I could easily use 10 more to meet demand. At least here in Texas, the population growth and growth in urban centers is causing municipalities and tree care companies to really grow — so there’s a need for these qualified students to come out and get started in the career … Companies want to hire students with a bachelor’s degree — they come out with communications and critical-thinking skills that really put them on the fast track to a position where they can help the company.”

There was also agreement that the challenge comes in attracting students into these college programs. “In the twenty-some years that I’ve been teaching here, it’s been a challenge for us to get students in the door who are interested in the field of arboriculture. It’s always difficult to put a finger on why, because the students end up with great careers,” says Swanson. He thinks part of it might be misconceptions about the industry and about what arborists actually do. For parents sending their kids off to college, these factors might make them advise against pursuing arboriculture, Swanson states: “They see a pickup driving by with some yahoos in it and they’re doing tree work. So they think, ‘Why would I send my kid to college to do that?’ They don’t recognize that higher-end tree care involves so much expertise that does require college training.”

The continual efforts being made to convey the professionalism that does exist in the industry are important to inspiring young students to get an education and go to work in this field, says Swanson. Those in higher education are part of those efforts. At open houses, he tells perspective students that working toward their degree will give them the training to become a “tree doctor,” Swanson explains. “I use that euphemism to try to raise the bar.”

Not everyone comes to college knowing exactly what career they want to pursue, and that’s often the case for those studying arboriculture, says Swanson. “Only about half of the students enrolled in the program have worked in or had any prior knowledge of the field of arboriculture,” says Swanson. These are students who generally know that this is the career path they want to follow and have come to Paul Smith’s specifically for the arboriculture program. Most of the others are students who have switched into arboriculture from other programs within the school. “They see what arboriculture students are doing, they see the job notices on our board, they meet other students studying arboriculture, they come and talk to me and transfer into it.”

At Stephen F. Austin, Williams also focuses on the technical skills needed in the industry. “We do a lot of recruiting, and a lot of times we will highlight urban forestry as a career option. We can show them how to assess a tree, we have a resistograph … there’s a lot of things we do to introduce high school students to the urban forestry profession,” says Williams. For some students, it’s this experience or prior work in tree care that draws them to pursue an urban forestry degree. In other cases, it’s those who come to the school with a general forestry interest who then learn about and are inspired to choose an urban forestry concentration.

The effort is also targeted at students who are already at the school, and who might have come intending to focus on some other aspect of natural resources management. “What’s difficult, at least in a traditional forestry program like ours, is to try to get students inspired to pursue this career,” says Williams. “Students come in and start on forestry management or wildlife management or recreation management and they say, ‘Oh, urban forestry, I hadn’t thought about that.'”

It helps, he says, for students to hear first-hand from those in the industry. For example, the school recently invited a crew from Bartlett Tree Experts — including three of its recent graduates — to come in and speak to students and do a demonstration, says Williams. “It’s one thing for a gray-hair like me to talk to them about all of this, but when they can see our recent graduates wearing a collared shirt and a nice pair of slacks explaining what they’re doing professionally and how they got there, that really resonates with the students.”

“There are different roads to get where you want to go,” advises Swanson. “College may not be for everybody, but I think there are certain advantages to going through a college curriculum, and getting the science behind tree care.”