Fact: If you’re an arborist serious about your profession, you need to be exceedingly familiar with the International Society of Arboriculture.

There’s no way around it.

The International Society of Arboriculture is the world’s largest professional network of people interested in caring for and promoting the benefits of trees, boasting more than 23,000 members with 57 ISA chapters, professional affiliates and associate organizations in over 50 countries. The ISA credentialing program includes about 30,000 ISA certified arborists in 34 countries.

The organization’s Executive Director, Jim Skiera, is at the forefront of its development and growth.

Skiera—who has served in this role since 2005 — received his Bachelor of Science degree in landscape architecture, with a secondary major in ornamental horticulture, from the University of Wisconsin in 1980. He practiced as a landscape architect as president and owner of the Landscape Guild in Denver, Colorado, from 1981 to 1988, served as city arborist for the city of Urbana, Illinois, from 1988 to 1992 and also as the landscape superintendent for the University of California, Davis, from 1992 to 1994. Skiera has worked for the ISA since 1994.

Just before the Tree Care Industry Expo last month, we conducted a wide-ranging interview with Skiera covering several topical and critical industry subjects as well as items of interest regarding the ISA’s growth and current focuses.

Tree Services: What are the benefits for ISA members?

Jim Skiera: The ISA membership consists of individual members rather than member companies. These individual tree care professionals enjoy access to many benefits, including access to the “ISA network,” which offers opportunities for communicating with members from around the world to share experiences, knowledge and skills. These networking opportunities are an invaluable means of improving individual arboriculture skills and enriching professional and personal lives through interaction with a diverse group of people with similar interests who soon become friends. ISA is where the world of arboriculture meets, both in person at conferences and workshops and virtually through our online presence on all social media venues, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Other member benefits include six annual issues of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry, our scientific journal; six annual issues of Arborist News, our technical transfer and industry news magazine; ISA Today, our monthly e-newsletter; access to our members-only section of the ISA website; a robust public relations program through our TreesAreGood website and public education program; and discounts on ISA products and services, including member rates on conferences, online courses and the ISA certification program. Together with our members, we’re making the world a better place, one tree at a time.

TS: Why is it important for individual arborists to become ISA-certified?

Skiera: The ISA certified arborist program was developed to establish a global identity for arborists as professionals who care for trees. It identifies people who have committed to caring for trees using science-based, peer-reviewed best practices and standards. They also commit to ongoing education to continue developing and improving their knowledge and skills.

I’m regularly overwhelmed by people I meet at conferences and workshops who tell me the ISA certification program changed their lives. It opened their eyes to the value of education, which has improved their self-worth. The program continues to grow in popularity and now is often a required credential in order to bid on projects in municipalities around the world.

During a 2008 visit to Xian (Shaanxi Province), China, Jim Skiera took a tour of the Chinese Academy of Science and met with delegates from a local nursery and the Department of Commerce.


TS: In your view, what’s the current state of the arboriculture industry?

Skiera: The industry is abuzz with new technologies that are making tree work more productive and safer to perform. At the same time, the industry is becoming more complex, so skill levels are also on the rise. It’s hard to believe that the first time the U.S. industry standard required arborists working aloft to be tied-in at all times was in 2000. So, we’ve come a long way, and the innovation seems endless. Safety has become a part of more and more tree care companies’ cultures, and the emphasis on safety training is greater than ever before.

I also see a public that’s more aware of the benefits of trees, which is keeping tree companies very busy. This has created another trend where companies are more likely to be competing for employees rather than work.

TS: The ISA held its International Conference and Trade Show in August — talk about the importance of this event and why arborists and tree care pros should make it a point to be there in 2016?

Skiera: The ISA Annual International Conference is truly the only one of its kind in the world. It’s where the professional arborist comes to learn and share with researchers, educators, exhibitors, manufacturers — all aspects of the industry in one place. We typically have somewhere in the range of 25 countries represented at each conference, and although they may not all speak English fluently, they all speak arboriculture with a passion like no other profession.

The 2016 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, will be a rich experience. We’re trying a few new things with workshops and providing CEU opportunities on the trade show floor. The speaker lineup is international and representative of all the areas of discipline, such as commercial, municipal and utility arboriculture, as well as research and education. As always, we’ll be maintaining a few traditions, like recognizing our top contributors with the ISA Awards of Distinction and ISA True Professionals of Arboriculture recognition. These elements of the conference event mix with numerous networking opportunities keep the conference experience both educational and exciting.

Jim Skiera, shown here admiring efforts to preserve a 1,100-year-old chestnut tree in Nagano, Japan with John Gathright (middle) and Takaaki Hara (far left) of the Japan Arborist Association.

TS: What are some projects in which the ISA is involved?

Skiera: We have four primary areas of focus this year. First, we’re reviewing all the job task analyses for our certification program. We do this every five years to align the credentials with best practices and current industry needs. We’re also researching the needs of field personnel so we can better develop and align our services with this demographic and help us understand how we might improve recruitment of the next generation of arborists.

We’re also evaluating our international growth opportunities to better understand how we can assist with global acceptance of science-based and peer-reviewed best-management practices. This includes market research to help us make better decisions and prioritize opportunities to utilize our limited resources to generate the greatest impact. Lastly, we’re doing some succession planning, both to replace the knowledge and skills of people like Sharon Lilly — our director of educational goods and services — who’s retiring in April, and to establish our human capital needs to advance our mission into the future.

TS: Talk more about these international growth opportunities.

Skiera: Right now, my primary focus is on our international work and expansion. We’ve been gradually building our international presence since 2000. As a result, we’ve been learning things — the biggest of which being the concept of “one size does not fit all.” We have very enthusiastic people around the world who want to be associated with our organization and who want to improve tree care in their locations, at various levels of sophistication. We have some who are probably already sophisticated beyond us who are looking for additional things they can use to move forward, for example, in Germany. Germans are very advanced in tree care, and they’re looking to expand their international presence with their technology and also tap into research. So we have a relationship with them there.

Another example is Brazil, which has no arboriculture industry whatsoever. They’re dealing with topics there involving supply chains; they can’t even get the equipment they need to do the work. Concerning utility line clearance on transmission lines, they’re doing it with machetes. If they’re really advanced, they might have a chain saw. So you have the high end (the Germans) and the low end. Obviously, one product mix doesn’t make it across all of our locations.

We’re also currently working in Hong Kong, which is growing very rapidly — we’re approaching 2,000 certified arborists there. This is an intensely urban society, so they don’t have any type of big horticulture industry, or a big forestry industry. Schools don’t have people with the background in these industries. This means the language base for arboriculture terms is very small. So they have to come up with their own words for industry terms. On the other end of this spectrum is Taiwan — they have a very productive forestry industry and a very big horticulture industry. So we’re working with these two areas, because even though they speak the same language, when it comes to arboriculture, they don’t speak the same language — they don’t use the same terms for the same things.

Rick Thomas, of Singapore, recruiting Jim Skiera to help judge the speed events at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Tree Climbing Championship in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.

TS: Forecast the future of the arboriculture industry — where is the industry headed in the next few years?

Skiera: As the public learns more and more about the benefits of trees, I anticipate strong growth in our future. As more and more of the research supports massive health benefits for people who live around trees, I see a time in the near future where this value of health benefits may exceed the customary values we preach today of energy conservation, water quality management, biodiversity and increased economic value for real estate.

I also see that trees, in particular the urban tree canopy, could soon be accepted as a new layer of community infrastructure along with roads, communication and power distribution, water quality/availability and storm water management. The roles of arborists and urban foresters will include becoming stewards of the infrastructure, not just the green infrastructure, which will require a new set of skills to help these professionals communicate and collaborate.

TS: Talk about the importance of safety for tree care pros and some of the ways the ISA promotes safety for the industry.

Skiera: First, I think it goes without saying that coming home safe every night to your family is paramount. I also believe we need to promote the fact that our industry jobs, when performed using industry standards, are safe and necessary and can provide people with a good living. To recruit the next generation of arborists, we need to be able to compete with other industries that attract similar people. If we can’t improve our reputation as a dangerous profession, recruiting is going to continue to be difficult. The U.S. Department of Labor still classifies tree trimmers as seasonal, unskilled labor. That isn’t helping us, and it’s clearly not a true representation of most of the tree care workforce.

Our biggest safety promotion over the years has been through the tree climbing championships. These events have created a culture of safety among those who regularly participate, and has also been a catalyst for many of the safety trainers who promote safety at conferences and workshops around the world. We’re looking to engage that passion at a higher level with our field worker programing.

Jim Skiera with Tomasz Chmielnik of the Federation of Polish Arborists, during the 2014 European Tree Climbing Championship in Swierklaniec Park in Swierklaniec, Poland.

TS: How about the International Tree Climbing Championship? What makes this event so special?

Skiera: The ITCC has become “THE event” in the climbing arborists’ world. What makes the event so special is that it’s less about the competition and more about safety, sharing and camaraderie. For years, the ITCC has driven innovation in the climbing world. It has led with safety and improved the recognition of the climbing community as professionals in their own right.

Obviously, becoming “World Champion” is the top honor, and the winners receive accolades, cheers and global recognition. But the “Spirit of the Competition” and the “Arthur B. Smith Volunteer Spirit” awards are the awards that give everyone a lump in their throat — these winners have unselfishly exhibited support for their fellow competitors, shared their experience and knowledge and displayed a genuine love of the experience, which makes it a better experience for everyone present. That’s the deeper value of the ITCC.

TS: Why is PHC (plant health care) so important? Also, talk about the concept of preventive plant health care vs. reactive plant health care, and why it’s so crucial to be preventive.

Skiera: The concept of Plant Health Care is very much like human health care — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care. Regular inspection of your trees and shrubs allows the arborists to proactively manage the health of your landscape. Regular inspection enables arborists to identify concerns and prescribe treatments that keep your assets protected, before the pest or disease become fatal. Removals can be extremely costly, but the greater loss is the loss of benefits that were being provided by a mature tree. Those benefits can’t be remedy overnight, it takes decades.

TS: Talk about the website TreesAreGood.org—why should people visit the site?

Skiera: TreesAreGood.org receives millions of visits each year by the general public. Our messaging with this program is “trees are good, trees need care, arborists care for trees.” We provide that message in terms that a tree owner with limited knowledge of tree biology can understand. The website also provides viewers the opportunity to locate an ISA-certified arborist in their local area.

If you’re a tree care provider, the brochures on this website are designed to be downloaded, printed and given to your clients to show that you’re a knowledgeable professional using best practices endorsed by an international association dedicated to proper tree care. Many of our members have the brochures professionally printed with their company name and contact information included on them. They leave them behind with their customers and/or hand them out during site visits.

TS: How does the ISA help guide students interested in arboriculture and urban forestry?

Skiera: A few years ago, we started offering any student who was a member of one of our local chapters a free membership to the ISA. We do this to introduce them to the network, both locally and internationally, to improve the likelihood they’ll remain in the profession and continue as members of ISA when they graduate. This program has increased the number of student members more than 100 percent. Essentially, we offer students a free ride on the bus, and they have access to all the amenities.

Jim Skiera with Tomasz Chmielnik of the Federation of Polish Arborists, during the 2014 European Tree Climbing Championship in Swierklaniec Park in Swierklaniec, Poland.

TS: How do local and regional chapters fit into the ISA’s goals and plans?

Skiera: Our chapters and other affiliates are the people who really make the ISA successful. They deliver the “ISA Experience” at the local level and enrich the global experience for everyone as they share their knowledge and experience with others from around the world. Simply put, we wouldn’t be the ISA without our affiliates.

TS: How is technology changing the way the ISA operates?

Skiera: We’re constantly looking for new ways to deliver our message and services. This is both amazing and a challenge, as people are becoming segregated by how they communicate. Our service offerings continue to expand and evolve as electronic communication diversifies. You used to be able to communicate with everyone with your mailed newsletter that went out every quarter. Now, we have to refresh our messages daily and then adapt them to the different, modern media used for communication.

TS: If you had the power to instantly change one thing about the arboriculture industry, what would it be?

Skiera: The tainted public image we receive due to fly-by-night operations. I’d like the public to see arborists for what they are, people making the world a better place, one tree at a time.

TS: In your experience, both as a practicing arborist and now as the executive director of the ISA, what is your favorite part of the arboriculture industry?

Skiera: No question, the people. Arborists are a passionate and loving group. I describe some of the lifelong friends I’ve made in this industry as “burnt marshmallows” — crusty on the outside and gooey in the middle. They come across as some of the toughest people you’ll ever meet, and then give you a big hug and tell you they love you. There’s no other industry like it!