CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Paradise Landscape Maintenance worker Jeremy Dunivan comes back down a tree headfirst. New tree-climbing equipment has made the work faster and safer.
Lops to learn
A certificate program in urban tree care will begin in August
Beginning this fall, students at Windward Community College will take higher education to new heights.
The school will offer Hawaii's first certificate in subtropical urban tree care, and those who sign up will take a tree-climbing class where they will hang from ropes several feet above the ground while carrying tools like chain saws.
The 12- to 14-credit program, which also includes courses on plant science, tree biology and pesticides, hopes to ease a shortage of qualified arborists in the state, created in part by a lack of educational programs and an increase in calls for tree maintenance from military housing that has been privatized in recent years, industry officials say.
Also, demand has risen since the highly publicized fall of a 70- to 75-foot, termite-damaged Norfolk Island pine tree that sliced through a Manoa home and severely injured a girl in March 2005.
But without enough workers, companies cannot grow, and become backlogged.
"I turn away a lot of work, and it's basically because there's so much work to do," said Gregory Severino, operations manager at Paradise Landscape Maintenance Inc., which has a month's worth of contracts and is five workers short. "If I could hire more guys, I wouldn't turn away that work, and I would just expand, expand and expand."
Before the military began privatizing housing a few years ago, Severino said, the government would do tree work when a resident complained. Now, contractors are being called more often to prevent safety hazards with regular maintenance, he said.
"There's literally a few million dollars' worth of tree work today that didn't exist three years ago," Severino said, calling Windward Community College's tree certificate "long overdue."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Gregory Severino, operations manager at Paradise Landscape, holds a Micro Mouse Pulley made specifically for tree climbing. Modifications to mountain-climbing equipment have revolutionized tree-climbing.
On Oahu alone an additional 12 workers are needed among just six of some 30 tree care businesses on the island, according to David Ringuette, a Windward Community College professor who teaches horticulture and is coordinating the one-year certificate program.
"That's the need right now and they can't fill it," he said. "So they are just scrambling with overtime and pushing their employees, which that is when mistakes happen, and that is when safety sometimes gets compromised."
Ringuette got about $12,000 in grants and funding from the federal government and other sources, including $1,500 from the Aloha Arborist Association, to buy pole pruners, climbing equipment, ropes, saddles and pulleys for the classes, which start Aug. 25.
The association announced this month another donation of $3,500 for the Hawaii State Public Library System so that it can buy materials for certified arborists to gain extra educational credits.
"It's very expensive to bring tree workers from the mainland, and we need to raise more people here locally," said the association's Carol Kwan. "It's a really good field to go into. There is a lot of growth potential."
The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations estimates a 10 percent growth in the state's tree care industry over the next decade, with pay averaging $35,000, Ringuette said. On Oahu, companies employing some 514 tree workers generate about $40 million annually, he said.
But businesses are forced to spend time and money hiring and training entry-level workers, said Steve Nimz, of Steve Nimz & Associates, an arborist consulting firm.
He said the certificate program will teach students how trees grow and give them skills to visualize how a tree should look like before it is trimmed.
"It's an exciting career, but it's not everybody that can do it. You can't be afraid of heights, you have to have an eye and you have to be physically fit," said Nimz, who owned the maintenance company the Tree People for 35 years. "It's a challenge to get all of those together in one person."