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First-in-the-nation arborist apprenticeship program celebrates 5 years!

April 30, 2021

The apprentice is using a rope to safely remove a large piece of deadwood from a White Oak. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Technical College System.
The apprentice is using a rope to safely remove a large piece of deadwood from a White Oak. Photograph courtesy of the Wisconsin Technical College System.

"Once there was a tree…" It's the first sentence from the beloved children's book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. As the story goes, the Giving Tree provides a little boy she loves with everything he needs as he grows up – her leaves to play with, apples to eat, branches to make a home and, eventually, her trunk to build a boat and sail away. The story reminds us how vital trees are for all of us, providing food, lumber, beauty and life.

But caring for the health of trees is about more than just appreciating all they give us. It takes years of education and training to develop a knowledge of soil science, plant biology, pest management, and disease prevention. That's why the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) developed an entire apprenticeship pathway into this industry through its Wisconsin Apprenticeship System. The Arborist Registered Apprenticeship started in 2016, the first program of its kind in the country.

Apprenticeship is employment, as well as post-secondary education, where apprentices learn only a portion of their skills in a traditional classroom. They receive most of their training on-the-job while working for an employer who pays the apprentices a wage, with the classroom instruction typically provided through the Wisconsin Technical College System. Apprenticeship has many benefits for both employers and job seekers. Most beneficial for job seekers is that they are a full-time employee from the day they sign their apprenticeship contract.

Wachtel Tree Science, along with Hoppe Tree Services and Crawford Tree and Landscape, had the first arborist apprentices in Wisconsin. The group saw Wisconsin's apprenticeship program as an opportunity in developing a workforce in the green industry.

"A strong apprenticeship program creates an opportunity for workforce development, where the demand for arborists far outweighs the supply," Ben Reince, Wachtel Tree Science Executive Vice President, said. "The apprentice will be trained in the skills that it takes to become a proficient arborist, with skills that can be used no matter where they go in the career."

The arborist apprenticeship program takes approximately three years to complete, with roughly 6,000 hours of on-the-job training. However, a key piece to the program is that apprentices do not have to take extra time to find a paying job while they are receiving training – they are full-time employees getting paid to learn.

"The industry has a lot to offer to those who have the passion to preserve and protect the forests (natural or urban) within the state," Reince said. "The Wisconsin Arborist Apprenticeship Program is helping to build an industry of professionals who will provide the solutions to Wisconsin’s tree needs."

"We joke that the program 'branched out' quickly," Joshua Johnson, director of DWD's Wisconsin Apprenticeship System, said. "It began with three employers, and it is now an industry that, in addition to the registered apprenticeship program, has certified pre-apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship programs. It is a wonderful example of an industry adopting a new talent pipeline to keep it thriving."