Like any living thing, trees need care and maintenance, especially when they’re in an urban environment where falling branches cause problems. So who do you send to climb hundreds of metres into the air with a chainsaw? An arborist like Mark Chisholm.
Mark has been working most of his life as an arborist, having taken up the family trade. The work requires extensive knowledge of arboriculture as well as the physicality of an athlete. In fact, Mark’s won quite a number of tree-climbing championships. (Yes, there are climbing competitions; the profession seems rife with friendly competitive spirit). We spoke with Mark to learn a little about his work tending to trees as an arborist as well as his efforts to educate others about trees and safe climbing.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work as an arborist and how long you’ve been at it.
I started working and climbing by the age of 12. It was a much different landscape in that safety, technology and science have influenced the industry dramatically and for the better. Today I work faster, with a greater focus on safety and feel less physical strain than I did in my 20’s.
What drove you to choose your career path? How did you go about getting your job?
I am a bit unusual here. I am a third-generation arborist and started working because I wanted to join my family’s crew and experience everything they talked about after work. The talk of physical battles, the laughs they shared, the pride they expressed in their war stories — it was all enticing. They finally agreed to let me tag along and I got the bug. Most everyone at that time learned via on-the-job training and I was no different. Today, many entrants begin with a degree in urban forestry or some similar discipline. At the time I started, all we needed to do was show up and be ready to work as hard as we physically could.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
The majority of my time is spent working at our family business, Aspen Tree Expert Co Inc. Apart from that, I spend a good amount of time travelling to shows, conferences, tree climbing competitions and some media events on behalf of STIHL Inc. We began a partnership about 15 years ago with the goal of sharing tips with my fellow arborists and spreading the word about the value of trees and the need to care for them properly. This relationship, along with partnerships I have with rope and harness manufacturer Teufelberger and safety helmet company Kask, have brought incredible opportunities for me to do more to reach these goals than I ever could’ve dreamed.
Last year, I participated in more than two dozen events, flew more than 80,500km travelling to such far-away places as Italy and New Zealand, and landed on TV shows like ABC’s 20/20 and even in a music video for The Band Perry. I also crossed an item off my bucket list of tree climbs, spending time high up in the majestic Redwood trees with some of the best climbers in the world. Being able to share these tips and concepts with so many people is extremely rewarding.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Many people view tree workers as unskilled labourers and that could not be further from the truth for the majority in the field. With the knowledge needed to properly identify a tree and its needs, the safety requirements we must uphold, plus the amount of training needed in such disciplines as physics, chainsaw safety, geometry and proper crane operation, being unskilled is not an option. This is why continued education is so important to our industry.
I also think most people believe arborists only remove trees, when we very often are saving them and helping the environment in the process. Most tree workers are passionate advocates for healthy trees.
What are your average work hours? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
The industry is notorious for long hours and they get longer during storms. However, I’m pretty lucky to work for a company with an appreciation for time away from work as a necessity for employee health. We’ve been in business for 40 years next month, so a lot of experience and difficult years have helped us create a better environment in this regard.
What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?
I’m forever learning and finding new ways to approach my daily tasks. One tip I often give is to expose yourself to the latest and greatest in tools and gear whenever you can, on a regular basis. Without this approach you become stagnant and miss out on things like new climbing methods or equipment, like better-performing chain saws with ergonomic benefits from STIHL. I am famous for saying “work harder AND smarter!” This is how you achieve that.
What do you do differently from your co-workers or peers in the same profession?
I focus on being a professional first and that means always trying to improve. Long ago, I learned momentum is created through consistency. Once you have momentum moving in the direction you want to go, everything gets easier and better. This requires dedication to being your best for the long haul. It’s not easy, but it is the right way to achieve your most lofty goals.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
That’s a hard one. Sometimes it’s the harsh weather conditions. Other times, it’s pushing past new physical limits. There’s always the “less than desirable” customer. What I do is dig deep and push on knowing this is just part of the test and it will be over soon enough.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
I enjoy the diversity in my job the most. I love the feeling of scaling a grand 400-year-old oak to help preserve its existence on Monday, testing myself physically and mentally in a technical hazard tree removal with a skilled team of pros armed with incredible tools on Tuesday, then flying off Wednesday to share some information with fellow tree climbers in a distant place. Plus, the types of people I get to work and interact with are incredible. It’s great to give homeowners tips about taking care of the trees they have and helping their new trees thrive. What’s not to love?
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Starting salaries at the ground level are not fantastic, maybe $US15 ($21) per hour plus benefits. But as soon as you treat yourself as a professional and approach the job like it is a profession, the money gets better and better quickly. Good climbers can expect to earn anywhere from $US25-40 ($35-56) per hour, and other parts of the industry pay even more. I know many people who became very active in safety and training and are now earning six-figure salaries and doing very well for themselves. Successful business owners can do very well, too. It is a hard business with rewards for those willing to invest in their own development and growth. It’s an honest living to boot.
Is there a way to “move up” in your field? (Unintentional tree pun.)
Being active in the industry is a way to fast-track your career for sure. I can’t stress this enough. Get involved and stay involved!
What do people under/over value about what you do?
They undervalue the need to perform proper tree care and its importance to the environment as a whole, right down to the smallest community level. They overvalue the risks. The general public sometimes looks at what I do as death-defying or high-risk and I see this as unfair. What I see are unskilled people without proper training making mistakes that reflect poorly on the industry at large. Yes, we work high above ground and use sharp tools, but well-trained individuals can expect a long and healthy career when approached with the right mentality.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Do it! This may be the best profession out there. I almost never complain about having to go to work. I recommend joining a safety-oriented company and getting good training before attempting this line of work. I’m active in our industry’s major associations, the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association.
And of course, always stay connected to current trends by being a student for life.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.