TFTC #18 Arboriculture – Is it an Occupation or a Profession?

by Travis Vickerson Jul 16th 2020

First, we have to understand the distinction between the two terms, and how these two words correspond to what we call “work.” Work is a common theme – we work to make money, we work hard to feel good about ourselves, we work to stay in shape. Yet not everything we work on is an occupation.

First, we have to understand the distinction between the two terms, and how these two words correspond to what we call “work.”

Work is a common theme – we work to make money, we work hard to feel good about ourselves, we work to stay in shape. Yet not everything we work on is an occupation.

For example, working on my fly-fishing hobby doesn’t mean it’s my occupation. It is agreed upon that the work we do as arborists is an occupation, but you can do an occupation professionally. Let’s walk through what determines a profession relative to an occupation:

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A profession is a collection of individuals that identify as a group based on the similar work they perform. Whether you are a certified arborist or not, we all are working as arborists. We can check that box.

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A profession is an occupation that requires specific knowledge and skills. We can check that box due to our required understanding of biology, basic physics and general skills we’ve learned on the jobsite.

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A professional is an occupation that requires specialized training and/or certification. This topic leads to a greater conversation. We’ll touch on this in greater detail shortly.

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A profession is an occupation where those that perform this work adhere to a certain set of general principles to perform their profession. We would all agree that you can’t start on day one and know how to be a functioning arborist. It’s essential that you have the experience and knowledge in your specific job(s) to perform them with any level of efficiency and safety.

I think 3 out of 4 is a strong number, considering the occupation we engage in as part of our profession, but let’s look at the third point in more detail.

We know that not every working arborist is certified. But we can all agree that the work we do requires a very specialized type of training, either in a formal or on-the-job setting. So why not become certified? Why not show your level of commitment to the profession of arboriculture and take the ISA or TCIA Tree Care Academy series credentials? The certificate of completion series is a great way to showcase and apply the knowledge you’ve worked so hard to obtain. It may also help you get an extra bump in pay from your employer!

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Now, let’s challenge you on the topic of training, specifically on how we view the safety standards that our industry follows….. ANSI Z133 (or just Z133)!

The Z133 safety standard governs our industry and was developed by arborists like you. We are one of the few industries remaining that isn’t regulated by the U.S. government in how safely we conduct our work. However, as long as fatalities and large number of injured workers occur as a result of not following the Z133 standard, the more likely a federal safety standard (OSHA) will be put in place for us. We know that some of you following the Z133 standard closely, some of you only follow parts that you agree with or are “convenient”, and some of you don’t even know or care that the Z133 standard exists.

But what most people don’t know is that anyone care be involved in drafting and modifying the current Z133 standards. Attend any of the meetings (2 meetings a year – April and October) and submit questions on the current version of the Z133 standard. If the committee (comprised entirely of fellow arborists) agrees with your suggestions, then the standard gets changed. If you haven’t been following the standards closely before, now is the time to embrace the Z133 standards and start affecting change in your industry and your profession. Ultimately, these standards exist for the safety of you and your crew.

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We have concluded that arboriculture, and the work we perform every day, is in fact a profession, but that doesn’t mean we perform work professionally. What is the difference? One’s level of “professionalism” is often a subjective thing. Is it more professional if your equipment and people are presented in a clean and tidy appearance? Is it more professional if workers don’t cuss and yell at each other on the jobsite?

To better answer these questions, let’s look at “professionals” in other industries. For me, a doctor’s office that is sanitary and organized is more professional than a dimly lit and cluttered workspace. Pilots and flight attendants are more “professional” when wearing clean uniforms, smiling, talking in a positive manner, and generally being courteous to all passengers. These observations are general in nature, and may have zero influence on how the ultimate outcome of your doctor’s visit or flight, but don’t you feel better know that they performed their work in a “professional” manner, and more inclined to visit that doctor again or book another flight with that airline?

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You might be reading this post and wonder, “Why does it matter if we are a profession or an occupation?”

Not every person can perform the tasks arborists perform every day. A professional should be paid for their knowledge and highly skilled abilities. But an occupation has no group identity, has no specific knowledge or training requirement to perform some type of work. An occupation literally translates into someone’s basic knowledge or general interest in a topic. The sooner we can elevate ourselves into the professional role within the arborist industry, the sooner we can be compensated correctly for the mixture of art and science our craft demands, and our clients want!

Professionals operate by working as a team to achieve the advancement of that specific profession for the overall benefit of the industry. We may not always see eye to eye on the “best” way to get the job done safely and effectively, we need to stand together as the arborist industry to show that being an arborist is more than just a hobby or occupation, but rather we are a profession of professionals.

Be safe.

Travis Vickerson (@travisvickerson) is an active arborist, trainer, and presenter focused on the education of safety and training. He has a passion to create a safer and more efficient industry. Travis is the author of the book Leadership for TODAY: Leadership for those who keep life civilized.