Sunday, July 24, 2006

Trimmers rise to top of their profession through certification, time spent in trees

By Liz Garone
Special to Sunday Jobs

As a kid, Randy Hopp loved to climb trees, and he often got in trouble for it. So, when a friend asked him to help him out for a summer trimming trees, he jumped at the chance. "I liked the idea that someone would pay me to do something my dad used to yell at me for doing," Hopp says .

"Right away, I was hooked. I loved working outside and climbing trees."

Today, decades later, Hopp is a certified arborist and a salesman and estimator with Grover Landscape Services, Inc., in Modesto. He still climbs trees whenever he gets the chance, whether it is as part of his job or as a contestant in national or international tree-climbing contests.

But, it would be a mistake to think that all tree trimmers do is climb trees, Hopp says . In addition to climbing, there is the actual tree trimming, operation of a bucket truck, brush and limb removal, the dragging of the tree brush to the chipper, and feeding it into the chipper. "The job is physically demanding," Hopp says. "You have to be in pretty good shape."

In addition to being in good physical shape, you can't be afraid of heights. "Sometimes, you're hanging from a rope 60 to 80 feet in the air," says Mark Grover, who owns Grover Landscape Services. "If you're afraid of heights, you wouldn't be a good candidate for this job." There is both a science and an art to trimming trees, says Hopp. "It's a combination of the two. You have to make the correct cuts and know what to remove. But, you also want to make it aesthetically pleasing." Hopp says he has seen plenty of trimmers who have lots of experience but still don't get the cuts right. "You have to be able to see it in your head," he says.

In order to master that right combination, you need a lot of practice and the opportunity to learn from more experienced tree trimmers. The best way to learn is "on the job" as an entry-level groundsman, according to Michael Humphrey, the owner of A-1 Arbor Tree Service, Inc., in Modesto. "We train people as groundsmen," says Humphrey. "They learn from the bottom up."

Groundswomen are still an anomaly in the business, says Hopp, who hasn't met any female tree trimmers in the Central Valley and only a couple in other parts of California. "The opportunities are there if a female wants to do it," he says. "But, it's pretty much a guys' field right now."

Groundsmen drag the brush to the chipper, use chainsaws and work on the ground as support to the more experienced tree trimmers. Basically, groundsmen do everything except climb and trim the trees. Pay for entry-level positions starts around $8 to $10 an hour. Experienced and certified trimmers can make $20 to $24 an hour.

To become certified as an arborist, you need to have three years of experience in tree care and to pass a written exam administered by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), a worldwide professional organization for tree specialists ( The exam covers every aspect of tree care and is "quite extensive and detailed," according to Hopp, who became certified in 1986. To pass the test, he self-studied, both textbooks and study guides available through the ISA. "Having the certification eventually opened up a number of doors for me," he says, adding, "The sky is the limit. The more educated you get, the more opportunities you'll have with big companies."

In addition, many city, county and school positions require certification for trimmers. "It's a big deal in the industry," Hopp says.

For Humphrey, who learned the business from his father and has been doing it since he was a teenager, it's a job that never gets boring. "You're working at different job sites day to day. You're out in the open and you drive from job to job, so you get to take breaks. There's always something new." It's also a job that can give you a lot of satisfaction, he says. "As a trimmer, you take great pride in your trees."

Both Grover Landscape Services and A-1 Arbor Tree Service hire groundsmen and experienced tree trimmers on a regular basis.

Enrique Ojeda, a foreman and trimmer with Grover Landscape Services, Modesto, climbs a towering Aleppo pine in need of cabeling which provides support for weak branch and trunk seams, stabilizes splits and frost cracks and protects injured limbs. In the bucket is climber and trimmer Marcos Favela, who hands tools to Ojeda as he drills and installs hardware in vulnerable parts of the tree. At right: Climber Jesus Silva sends tools up to Favela and Ojeda.

Michael Humphrey, owner of A-1 Arbor Tree Service in Modesto, reduces the risk of splitting on this old Monterey pine by trimming to eliminate excessive weight. He has been trimming this same tree for the past 20 years, he says. Humphrey hires groundsmen and experienced tree trimmers on a regular basis.

<< back