Sami Baker, this year's Primary ITO Got a Trade Ambassador, clearly remembers driving past a crew of arborists in Christchurch years ago who were dangling from trees holding chainsaws and thinking ‘that would be a dream job’.
Fast forward several years, and the 26 year-old is now the one dangling from great heights – most recently above an earthquake-ravaged SH2 near Kaikoura.
“We got called in to abseil down the cliff faces and remove all the trees that were in danger of coming down,” she explains. “It was a great learning curve but a bit scary because the earthquake had pretty much destroyed the road. You really had to trust your training and the crew members around you.”
Sami is now half way through her three-year apprenticeship with Christchurch and Wellington-based arborist company Treetech. She is learning practical skills on the job while also studying towards her Level 4 Certificate in Arboriculture with Primary ITO.
“I was never really into writing or reading at school. I was always a hands-on learner. So l left school when I was 17 and worked odd jobs in cafes before travelling to Canada for a year.”
While overseas, she got a taste for life working outdoors by planting trees in a remote forestry plantation. So when she arrived back in Christchurch and saw Treetech was looking for an apprentice, she went for it.
“I never thought I’d be capable of being an arborist, but I soon realised anyone can do it if you’ve got the right attitude and you’re willing to learn.”
The ability to earn money while learning on the job is one huge benefit, and Sami is soaking up the advice and knowledge shared by those around her.
“That’s why I believe apprenticeships are a great way of learning because you pick up a wide range of skills from lots of different people. The girls and guys who work in arboriculture are just outstanding people and everyone is very keen to show you their way of doing things.”
A typical day could see Sami pruning trees to let more light into people’s properties, removing ivy, dismantling hazards or trimming foliage near high voltage power lines on Bank’s Peninsula.
“You get to walk up hills all day in the middle of nowhere and enjoy nature and scenery that most people will never get to see. It’s an awesome feeling being in the tree canopy, surrounded by views and birds flying around you. You’re just up there hanging out with nature.”
Sami says she learns something new every day and has formed a close bond with her Treetech colleagues. “You’re often working with harnesses and high ropes and chainsaws, so you have to rely on those around you and your crew leader to keep you safe.”
To extend her skills, Sami has also gotten involved in tree climbing competitions. She qualified for the nationals in Tauranga last year and has recently travelled to Australia twice to compete.
“You spend the first six months of your apprenticeship working on the ground. I’m a rock climber and like heights so I started doing climbing competitions to build up my skills and learn more about the industry.
“The nationals in October last year were awesome. There were four females competing and I came fourth which is what I was expecting but I learnt so much. It’s not like other sport – everyone’s there to help you get better.”
Her work has also taken her to Wellington where she spent several weeks helping clear trees to make way for the new Transmission Gully motorway.
Qualified arborists are highly sought-after and currently feature on New Zealand Immigration’s skill shortages list. “There’s also a shortage of arborists internationally so wherever you go in the world you could get a job.”
Sami’s advice to those considering a career in arboriculture is to have a ‘can do’ attitude and be interested in the job. “Listen and believe in yourself. If you want to learn, everyone wants to pass on knowledge to you so it’s a great industry to be involved in.”
For now, her goal is to finish her Primary ITO study and learn how to be the best arborist she can be. “Long-term, I’d love to mentor and help train other people to make sure they’re well supported when they enter the industry too.”
She’s also got her sights set on wielding some heavy-duty equipment and tackling more dangerous and challenging jobs.
“I’m really looking forward to doing a crane job where we remove big trees in tricky situations. We have to put the chains onto the tree and cut it, then the crane driver will lift the tree off and pull it away. It’s pretty exciting so that’s my next goal.”