How To Become A Certified Arborist in the US

If you have an affinity for trees and you want to start a rewarding career, then becoming an arborist might be the right career path for you. If you are already working in arboriculture and you are looking to become certified, then you’re in the right place. In this article, we will take you through the steps of becoming a certified arborist in the US.

Becoming a certified arborist in the USA can take over 3 years, and it requires you to become proficient in chainsaw use, first aid and other aspects of tree work. You then have an evaluation with the ISA or other international organizations to receive certification of your achievement. 

Find out everything you need to know about becoming a certified arborist in the US and beyond, with Arbjobs. 

How Do I Become A Certified Arborist?

In the US, becoming a certified arborist requires gaining experience and knowledge over several years.  If you are already on your journey of becoming a certified arborist, click the links below to jump to your section for more information and guidance on what to do next.

Becoming a certified arborist requires you to:

  1. Get your high school diploma or GED
  2. Get a state license (if applicable)
  3. Train on the job
  4. Learn basic arborist safety
  5. Become skilled and gain responsibility
  6. Apply for an ISA certificate

Following these steps will allow you to become qualified and then certified to become an arborist. First, let’s cover the role of an arborist to see what responsibilities are included and what you might get from this rewarding career. 

What is a Certified Arborist?

An arborist is a professional who practices arboriculture. This can include the management, cultivation, and study of individual trees, shrubs and other perennial woody plants. 

A certified arborist is a professional practitioner of arboriculture who has received a certificate from an institution such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). 

These certificates are important because they are only handed out to applicants who meet the requirements set by a group of master arborists. Gaining this certification means that the applicant has met an internationally recognized set of standards, this frees them up to work in any state, or even country, with a standardized set of skills. 

Gaining these certificates can take up to 18 weeks and cost between $170 for members and $280 for non-members. An additional fee of $125 may be applied for online completion of the course. Upon passing the exam, a fee of $18.99 is required to access your certificate, it allows the certificate holder to prove to employers that they are committed to the field of arboriculture. Successful applicants may also demand a higher salary or compete more successfully in the job market.

The ISA offers free retakes for up to one year if you fail to meet the grades needed to pass the exam. 

How To Become A Certified Arborist

As mentioned, following these 6 steps will best prepare you for becoming a certified arborist. 

1. Get Your High School Diploma or GED

Gaining your High School Diploma or GED isn’t necessary to become a qualified and certified arborist. However, as with many other occupations, getting a basic education is beneficial to becoming an arborist as it shows that you have a basic knowledge of English, math and the sciences. Gaining your diploma or GED also proves to employers that you are able to work to a specific standard. 

Of course, some tree surgeons and arborists don’t have a high school diploma or GED. If you are already in employment, or you already have some experience as an arborist, this step shouldn’t be a concern to you. However, if you are lacking these skills, maybe you can improve your resume to stand out to prospective employers. 

2. Apply for a State License

Only 7 states require you to have a license to work on trees professionally. 

These States are:

  1. California
  2. Connecticut
  3. Hawaii
  4. Louisiana
  5. Maine
  6. Maryland 
  7. Rhode Island.

These States require a license to be able to carry out any work on trees in any way. For the other 43 States, simple on-the-job training is enough to be able to work in tree care and maintenance in a professional environment. 

To become a licensed tree expert in Maryland, you need to have at least three years of work experience under a licensed tree expert, or one year of work experience combined with two years of college education. In addition, you must be at least 18 years old to get the license, and the fee for the license is $30. 

In Connecticut, for instance, the state fee for obtaining a license that allows you to work with trees is $200, and you must pass a tree identification test before taking the written test.

3. Train on the Job and Gain Further Education

The ISA stipulate that entrants have 3 years of educational or vocational experience before applying. A basic high school diploma or GED may not be enough in this case, a higher education is expected.

Once you have a permit (if applicable), your next step is to secure a job and train to become certified. The ISA will assess you on the main tenets of being an arborist. The best way to ensure that you are properly trained and ready for the assessment is to gain hands-on experience. 

There is no way around being fit and capable. In arboriculture, you can’t cut it as a pretender. Only the best arborists get certified, so ensure that you are always learning and growing in your occupation. The ISA assessment is grounded on self-study, and greatly assisted by practical experience and acquired knowledge. Motivating yourself, then, is the best way to grow as an arborist. 

The entry requirements equate to about 5,400 hours of work experience or college, directly related to arboricultural topics. 

4. Learn Basic Health and Safety Measures

Safe Work Practices take up between 15 and 20% of the total grade issued by the ISA. Each other module is around 9% of your total grade. This focus on workplace safety is reflected in the real-world practices of a fully qualified arborist. 

Working with trees is incredibly dangerous. As such, most of your day-to-day work will be taken up by ensuring the work that you or others around you are carrying out is carried out safely. 

5. Become Skilled and Gain Responsibility

As you progress through your career, you will likely pick up responsibilities and skills along the way. Responsibility is critically important in arboriculture because of the inherent risks that come with the occupation. 

Many arborists have skills in climbing and chainsaw work, but leadership skills and responsibilities are not always easy to come by. 

Advancing through your firm gives you a fuller understanding of what it is to be an arborist. It provides you with vocational skills that will help you advance in your career, leading to a higher salary, job security and, for some, greater job satisfaction. 

6. Apply for the ISA Certificate

Once you are comfortable with your own understanding of arboriculture, it might become time to become certified. 

Becoming certified shows customers, your employer or prospective employer that you are able to work at a higher level based on an internationally recognised set of principles. 

Whilst the exam changes regularly, the test that needs to be completed to get the certificate is based on 10 core areas that need to be understood (and later completed) in order to be considered a qualified arborist. These areas include:

  1. Tree Biology
  2. Tree Identification and Selection
  3. Soil Management
  4. Installation and Establishment
  5. Pruning
  6. Diagnosis and Treatment
  7. Trees and Construction
  8. Tree Risk
  9. Safe Work Practices
  10. Urban Forestry

Most topics in the ISA exam contribute to about 9% of the total test score, with around 15-20% of the total score being attributed to Safe Work Practices. 

Eligibility to gain ISA certification is dependent on a variety of factors. 

When submitting an application, applicants must provide documentation of work experience. Letters of reference from current or previous employers are preferred. 

Volunteer work may be considered if supervised and documented with details of responsibilities and hours worked. Eligibility requirements can be met through a combination of education and practical arboricultural experience, including completion of accredited degree programs or a two or four-year degree with specific arboriculture courses combined with practical experience.

How Hard is the ISA Certified Arborist Exam?

The ISA Certified Arborist Exam is intended to distinguish those who use good arborist practices from those who maybe do not. As such, the exam will only be hard for those who aren’t prepared for it. To complete the exam, entrants in 2022 had to get a 76/100 to pass. This can change year on year, but not by much. 

How Long Does It Take To Become A Certified Arborist?

Becoming certified in the US can take over 3 years. In order to be eligible for an ISA credential, a candidate must have a minimum of three years of full-time experience in arboriculture. Fortunately, this can be a combination of practical arboricultural experience and education. To provide context, one year of full-time experience is equivalent to approximately 1,795 hours of work.

As we have discussed, the best preparation for becoming a certified arborist is by working towards the role. The time it takes to become certified is therefore dependent on the applicant. 

Finding Arborist Roles with Arbjobs

Arbjobs is the largest arboriculture job site in the world. The resources that we provide can help you find a role as an arborist in many countries and states. You can check the latest arborist job listings today to get a clear understanding of what prospective employers are looking for.

With over 3500 global tree surgery firms using our site regularly, we can help you find your perfect job anywhere in the world.