Arboriculture finds itself in a paradoxical position. Never has public awareness been greater of the many social and environmental benefits of trees in public places, and the Government has endorsed these as never before. This can be seen in the commitments to trees its 25-year environment plan and appointment of a tree champion, Sir William Worsley, to drive these aims forward, along with its plans for a coast-to-coast Northern Forest and the greater protection it has given to ancient trees and woodlands in the planning system.
But generally this importance is not reflected in the industry’s scale, nor the numbers it employs. For arboricultural contractors, all market sectors remain competitive, none more so than local authority work, where the ongoing squeeze on public spending continues to put contractors under pressure to deliver contracts cheaply.
The arboriculture industry, along with forestry, is estimated to directly employ just under 21,000 people at all levels, according to the Oxford Economics report commissioned by the Ornamental Horticulture Round Table Group and published in October 2018. This put the total value of the industry at £1.86bn and its tax contribution at £149m, of which 95% comprises taxes on salaries.
Within this, specialist utility arboriculture work on trees adjacent to electricity supplies, rail, waterways and telecommunications networks represents an estimated £150m of work each year.
However, our analysis suggests an industry in stasis, relative to other sectors of horticulture and the economy more widely. Most specialist arboriculture companies are small enough not to have to file full audited accounts, making it hard to monitor their year-on-year financial performance directly. Yet even small firms list their number of employees, and comparing the top 20 arb specialist firms’ most recent employee figures with those of the previous year shows there has actually been a 1% drop in employee numbers, remaining at just over 1,500 workers.
In some sectors this would not be cause for concern but rather an indication of greater productivity, or of successful automation — rational responses to a generally tight labour market in which the overall employment rate is the highest on record and employment has been in decline for five years and now stands at barely 4%, on the low side even of what economists consider "full-employment".
Yet, as in the wider economy, this has not generally pushed up wages. One online job site puts the average annual salary for advertised arborist positions at just over £27,000 and says this represents a 4% fall year-on-year.
Arboriculture is by nature a labour-intensive industry, and likely to remain so, with labour typically accounting for at least half of turnover. One manager of a contractor in the Top 30 tells Horticulture Week: "The industry is fundamentally doing more for less. The demand for skilled employees outstrips supply, and the biggest growth restrictor for us is availability of skilled, hard-working arborists."
To address this, many firms now have apprenticeship schemes, helped by the industry-backed Arborist Apprenticeship standard launched in June 2017.
Another front the industry has opened up is diversity. Having generally relied on young white British men for most of its existence, arboriculture is now reaching out to women via the Arboriculture Association’s recently formed Women in Arboriculture Group, which offers support and guidance for those already in the industry or considering entering it. Others are attempting to reach out locally to more diverse communities from which the arboriculture industry has not traditionally drawn.
For arboriculture, some solace can be drawn from the fact that, as a largely self-contained UK industry, it is not beset as other sectors are by the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.