A range of voices from the world of utility arb weigh in on current challenges and opportunities in the sector.

UTILITY arboriculture is a significant employer in both arboriculture and the wider land-based sector. Those working in utility arb play an essential role in assisting to keep the country’s infrastructure operating efficiently, limiting disruption to the electricity, rail, telecommunications and water networks.

With such a key role being fulfilled by utility arb, why has it appeared to be viewed as the slightly rogue, bad-boy relation to its professional domestic arb sibling, and is this still a fair assumption?

Recruitment is challenging across the industry and those working in managing utility arb contracts are finding difficulties recruiting the number of arborists they need. Many companies appear to be almost continually recruiting and competition to secure new employees is high, with it definitely being a market that arborists can shop around in when looking for new positions.

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With secure, long-term employed positions or regular self-employed work available, utility arboriculture can not only be a great learning environment for newly qualified people, it can also offer a good career path for experienced people looking for new challenges.

Giovanni, HR manager for Hi-Line, an arboricultural company with a large utility division, advised: “In these difficult times we have noticed candidates are coming away from self-employed, domestic work, looking for something new and more secure. This is something we can provide. The vegetation management contracts are negotiated on a long-term scale and the work is there on a consistent basis, allowing for permanent full-time roles.

“We have adapted to challenges of recruitment and take on a range of people, from fully qualified and experienced, to trainees who are brand new to the industry, hopefully paving the way for a new generation of arborists.” 

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Historically, pay on utility work has been known to be lower than on domestic work, but over the past few years this certainly appears to have levelled up in many areas, with salaries for employed work being a lot more comparable across all areas of arboriculture.

Working on utility contracts will usually mean gaining additional qualifications to your standard arb qualifications. Employers will often put employees through the additional qualifications required, so not already having these should not be a barrier to finding work in the sector.

Additional qualifications needed include:

Electricity network      
• Network Operator Induction Course
• UA Basic Electrical Knowledge (formerly 
• UA Species ID (formerly UA2.1)
• UA Ground-ased Pruning (formerly 
• UA Assisted Felling (formerly UA2.2)
• UA Aerial Pruning (formerly UA2.3)
• UA Surveying (formerly UA5)

Rail network
• Sponsorship by a RISQS registered 
• Medical, drug and alcohol screening
• Registration on the Sentinel system
• PTS qualification (Personal Track Safety)

There is a range of specialist training providers for the utility arb courses. With opportunities across the UK, the range of roles available is varied, including grounds person, climber, team leader, machinery operator, MEWP worker, surveyor and contract manager.

James, a contract manager for Hi-Line, has worked in the utility sector for the company for the past 17 years. “Utility arb seemed to be frowned upon when I joined the industry,” he said.

“However, over the years it has gained momentum and the safety, quality and standard has increased massively.

“I started at Hi-Line as a groundsman, then was given the opportunity to climb and I was hooked. I progressed to team leader, followed by surveying on low- and high-voltage contracts. This gave me the opportunity to improve my communication skills and pick up lots of contacts on the way. My next role was field manager, one of my favourite roles, a nice mix of dealing with teams, customers and planning sites.

“My current role is contracts manager. Running a large National Grid contract has been one of my most challenging but rewarding roles to date. I have a large team of cutters, surveyors, field managers, plus an ecologist and tree consultant. I’m lucky to have a great team behind me. We all help each other to work through large-scale projects day to day. All of the roles leading up to this have been paramount in me fulfilling this role to the best of my ability.”

All areas of the country have utility tree teams working in them, some working directly for utility companies, others for the contractors that hold the contracts. As well as looking for jobs on websites like arbjobs.com, it is worth looking at the Utility Arboriculture Group page on the Arb Association website for companies who do this work, or speak to people who work on utility contracts to get their views of the work and a contact to speak to about vacancies.

Olly, who has worked in utility arb for the past five years, commented: “Utility work has many positives, but I would advise people to do their homework. It may not be for everyone. The jobs can be varied, but it’s not always in nice, clean gardens like domestic work. Having said that, it’s a brilliant sector to get into and once you’re fully qualified and have gained experience, more jobs and job roles become available to you.”  

As well as work being available for either employed or self-employed individuals, a large amount of utility work is also carried out by smaller companies which sub-contract into the larger companies.

Rich, owner of Webb Tree Care, has sub-contracted for many larger organisations. He said: “I feel quality has improved across most utility sectors with vegetation management taken more seriously now. We are currently sub-contracting for a large company cutting LV (low voltage) work 
in our area, plus we have our own domestic clients, manage tree stocks across estates in the area and do some street tree work, highways and other local authority work. In the past we’ve also done rail work.

“I feel there is plenty of work available, but you need to price it right and be realistic. It can be hard work quoting, everything is more expensive now and it still feels like the industry isn’t as recognised as it should be, so it can be a fine line between profit and loss on jobs.

“There are pros and cons to both the utility and domestic work. Utility is consistent, you get a volume of work issued to you, rather than quoting for smaller garden jobs. Subbies need to ensure work is of a high standard on utilities, with your staff always correctly qualified. One negative you need to cover yourself for is sometimes utility work may stop without much notice, meaning you can lose part of your regular income through no fault of your own.

"Having a combination of utility, domestic and commercial work can reduce that risk, as well as adding variety to your jobs. I enjoy working for a few larger contractors as well as having a good amount of my own clients. It’s a good balance.”    

Speaking to people currently working in utility arboriculture, the general opinion is that the industry has seen significant improvements in both safety and quality over the past 10 years. The standard of training has increased and, like arboriculture in general, there is finally more of a sense of it being seen as a professional skilled industry.

Matt, lead instructor at Hi-Line Training, has been working in the industry for 20 years. He said: “There is much more focus on safety and compliance than there used to be, more emphasis on the quality of tree work and meeting BS 3998 standards. Utility arb tree work should still conform to BS 3998 and thankfully the perception of clearance being more important than appearance is changing.

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“It definitely needs individuals who are proud to do a good standard of work and who want to work safely. I feel that utility arborists should be able to work to an even higher standard as they have to do the same crown reductions, dismantles and rigging jobs, but in close proximity to an electricity or rail network. Utility training courses can be quite intensive with a lot to learn; the better the basic arb skills and knowledge a candidate has, the easier it will be to take in all of the additional skills and knowledge required.

“In theory, the regular safety and quality audits that take place should be picking up on any issues and therefore standards should be continually improving.”