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The Challenge of Succession in Arboriculture

Challenge Of Succession

Anyone building a team in the land-based consultancy and design sector will know well, that there is something of a ‘crisis’ in recruitment and a looming crisis for succession in the professions that make up this sector. This is particularly acute in arboriculture.

The 2019 Horticulture Sector Skills Survey –Sub-Sector Report on Arboriculture (Pye Tait Consulting) showed that, of 109 job adverts for arboricultural consultant roles over the past 3 years, 22% remain open. The Landscape Institute’s 2018 Future State of Landscape report showed that 41% of practice heads reported struggling to recruit staff.

There are several pressures converging on our young profession, some of which are part of where we have come from and the way that we have developed over the journey so far, while other pressures are visible along the road ahead and lurking over the horizon.

Over the past decade arboricultural consultancy has sought successfully to professionalise and to build awareness of and demand for the benefits that expert tree advice can bring. This journey includes the development of expert arboricultural roles within councils and other land-managing organisations.

Whether advising landowners about tree risk management, or ancient trees in historic landscapes, or trees in the context of Design Planning and Construction, there is increasing demand for our expertise. And there are more demands to come; with increased recognition across society of the value of trees for amenity, health and wellbeing, and ecosystem services and pledges coming from all the main political parties for massive nation-wide tree planting.

However, during this time, we have not sufficiently developed the routes into the profession and the career paths through the profession to provide the tree experts that are needed now, and it is likely that this situation will persist for the next few years.

As so often in business there are many obstacles to improving our situation and threats to our profession but there are also many, many opportunities for us to develop greater relevance professionally, societally and politically.

Arboriculturists, along with other professions such as Landscape Architects, Architects, Town Planners and Civil Engineers, have a privileged role in helping to form and maintain the physical environments in which we all live. This helps to give us a sense of belonging wherever we are. Does that not feel like a gift?

Well maybe to you and me, but who knows about it? When the London Tree officers’ Association’s (LTOA) Diversity and Inclusion Working Group (DIWG) asked London’s Tree Officers, in a recent questionnaire, what barriers may exist to people from a broad range of backgrounds joining the profession, 11.3% responded that “lack of awareness” of arboriculture as a career option is likely to be a barrier.

This is not surprising, even the word “Arboriculture” can be baffling to the uninitiated. And we have all had the experience of being responded to with a blank stare and having to supplement our introduction with “…I am a tree expert”.

If we want people to experience the gift of working in this profession, we will need to build awareness of what we do across society. And if we really want to develop a sector that has a secure flow of graduates coming into the profession, we need to get the message to young people who are making decisions on the courses that they will apply for and the careers that they want to pursue. Our succession planning needs to be looking 10, 15, 20 years ahead.

At Treework, we have started on some work in this area, including attending careers days in schools and working with the Construction Youth Trust  to build a Key Stage 4 maths lesson around surveying trees for a construction design (BS5837).

But we are just one company, we may be large within a sector comprised of 61.7% micro companies and 32.5% small companies, but we are tiny in industry terms. The challenge of succession requires and industry wide approach.

In 2017 the Royal Academy of Engineering identified the engineering skills crisis as one of the four strategic challenges that they wanted to address; another was to position engineering at the heart of society. I attended a careers event in a school in Peckham, London in July 2019 and 80% of the young people who I spoke to wanted to be engineers of different kinds and that was 100% more than those who I spoke to when I attended the previous year. This is an illustration of an industry approach to building awareness working.

So, having inspired young people to investigate arboriculture as a career, will they be able to see themselves in our sector? If they look, will they see someone who looks like them, shares their background and experiences? The 20% of respondents to the LTOA DIWG’s questionnaire said that perception of lack of diverse representation among tree officers (in London one of the most diverse cities in the world) acts as a barrier to recruiting.

There is some work already being done in this area, for instance by the Arboricultural Association’s Women in Arboriculture group and the Institute of Chartered Forester’s #ILookLikeAForester campaign. However, when 77% of respondents to the LTOA DIWG questionnaire were male and 94% where white, in a city where 36% of employees are non-white, it is evident that we have a lot more work to do, if not to position arboriculture at the heart of society, at least to include society at the heart of and throughout arboriculture.

If people do choose arboriculture, will they see a route to progress through the profession, a structure within which they can develop, a career path to a senior position with responsibility and commensurate salary?

For a sector where 94% of companies are small or micro, these structures are difficult to support. We have taken the view in Treework that it is essential to provide a career path and the support through mentoring and training for people to develop.

The advent of Level 4 and Level 6 arboricultural apprenticeships should help our profession to provide better career development.

And then there is what is on the horizon… developments in automation, mass digital recording and analysis, and 3D modelling are going to change the way that we work. This will be a massive challenge and, of course, a massive opportunity, but that’s another blog…

Right now, if we want to attract the best people to our profession, share the gift of the amazing career that is arboriculture across society and make our sector fit for the future, it will take our whole profession to address to commit to these goals and focus on the next phase of our journey.


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