She is a five times world tree climbing champion but Chrissy Spence still remembers her first ever arboriculture job when she realised she was “petrified” of heights.
“All of my previous jobs had been on the ground but when my new employer put me on an elevated platform 25m up in the air for the first time I remember hiding in the bucket and not wanting to look over the edge.”
Chrissy admits she never had a burning desire to work in arboriculture. But after leaving high school and working on orchards, farms and in shearing gangs, she struggled to find a career path that interested her.
“I knew nothing about chainsaws or trees but my brother-in-law was an experienced arborist and he suggested I give it a go. He knew me well and I trusted his judgement.”
Aged 22 at the time, Chrissy took up an arboriculture apprenticeship in Hamilton. Her employer insisted she also enroll with Primary ITO so she could study and learn while on the job.
“I was very hesitant to study at first but they signed me up anyway. Now looking back, I’m very grateful they did because today you do need certificates and qualifications to get jobs and prove the skills you have.”
Chrissy says she had no interest in going to polytech for three years, so the opportunity to study while getting paid for full time work was very appealing.
“One of the best things I remember was being in class one day and realising there were other people who didn’t know anything about arboriculture either. Having people around you who are at the same level is great because you don’t feel like the only beginner who’s making mistakes.”
Chrissy says she loves working outdoors and “having my office at the top of a tree”. Because of the risks involved, teamwork is very important as you have to trust your co-workers’ judgement to ensure you remain safe.
“The other cool thing about doing the Primary ITO course is the fact there’s so much to learn in arboriculture. It’s not a job you can just pick up and you’re away laughing. It’s a constant learning process. I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I’m still learning stuff.”
One key skill she has certainly mastered is the ability to climb trees – fast. Chrissy has competed in tree climbing events all over the world and at the recent World Champs in Washington DC, she won the female title and placed third in the ‘master’s climb’ which is open to both men and women.
“It’s quite nice to be in the same league as the men,” she says. “I was very shy when I first started… I wasn’t very good at all. But I’ve just pushed myself to get better and better and it’s taken me all over the world.”
The tree climbing fraternity is also a useful way to network and pick up new arboriculture jobs, she says.
“One time I was travelling around Australia and my car broke down in Perth. I went along to a tree climbing competition that was on that weekend and within five minutes I had a job offer that came with a ute.
“Arboriculture is a job where you don’t need a big CV or have to wait long to find work. There’s huge demand. Once you’ve got two or three years’ experience under your belt, most people won’t have any trouble finding work.”