UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To help bolster the workforce for an industry in need of employees and provide a career path for residents of the state’s capital city, Penn State Extension recently offered a course, titled “Tree Climbing School,” in Harrisburg for the first time.
The three-day training covered the fundamentals of tree maintenance and safe tree climbing and introduced participants to the possibility of employment in the tree-care industry and related fields.)
“This is a marvelous opportunity for Harrisburg residents to get into a field with high demand and high pay,” said Catherine Scott, Master Gardener coordinator for Penn State Extension in Dauphin County, who helped organize logistics for the course.
The course’s instructor, Jim Savage, has taught tree climbing school for 28 years. He also teaches arboriculture in the Department of Plant Science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“The class is unique because there are no other introductory tree climbing classes in the country,” Savage said. “We’ve had people from the West Coast, Canada and as far south as Georgia come for it.”
Tree climbing requires a specific skill set. “It’s something that 99.9999% of the world cannot and does not want to do,” Savage said. “You need the right aptitude and the right attitude to dive into a tree and climb.”
One of the participants, Brennan Kaye, said the class was a physical and mental challenge: “I’m not afraid of heights, but it required a certain level of trust in myself and the knots I was tying to get myself safely up a tree. Then there’s the physical element of literally pulling yourself up a tree.”
Participants learned how to climb from the ground to the top of a tree, walk out on some limbs safely and come down, Savage explained.
With a focus on the skills required to climb and prune trees, the course serves as one step toward becoming a certified arborist. Along with three years of experience in tree work, certified arborists must pass the International Society of Arboriculture exam.
“Being a certified arborist gives you credibility with the public,” Savage said.
He arranged for Harrisburg-area certified arborists — including an employee from Goods Tree Care Inc. — to join the course, both to assist with instruction and to connect participants with potential job opportunities.
“Tree work is in big cities,” Savage said. “There’s a lot of need for someone to take care of that urban environment.”
Penn State Extension offers the tree climbing course in several major cities, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Reading. Savage was happy to see Harrisburg added to that list.
“Harrisburg has offered us a welcome mat,” said Scott, who works to expand Penn State Extension’s presence in the capital city. “We are grateful to be invited into Harrisburg for the honor of educating folks in a needed field. We can honor that invitation by lowering the barriers to entry for the students in our first year.”
Said Kaye, “The fact that this was accessible speaks volumes about how Penn State Extension prioritizes the well-being of communities, people, creatures and plants.”
Funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture helped make the course possible. USDA-NIFA funding supports many urban forestry and green industry extension educators, and workforce development is among the agency’s highest priorities.
“Industry representatives are ready to hire people who are interested in this field,” Scott said. “It’s a lovely meshing of supply and demand. I love that Penn State Extension can be at that connection point to facilitate this for Harrisburg residents.”
Kaye, who uses the pronoun they, said skills learned through the course will enrich their work with the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, a land trust based in Carlisle.
“Now I can get more involved with the forestry aspects here and how we care for our trees,” Kaye said. “I grew up in the desert, so my lived experience with trees, up until five or six years ago, was limited.”
Opportunities from Penn State Extension helped expand Kaye’s tree knowledge and experience. Prior to tree climbing school, Kaye participated in “Tree Tenders Training,” a program that empowers concerned residents to restore and maintain the tree canopy in their communities. Kaye also volunteers as a Master Watershed Steward, working with the community to improve the health of streams and rivers.
“As somebody who works in land care, loves trees, and wants to make our communities and our planet better places, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to add on to my conservationist toolbox and give back to the community,” Kaye said.
More information about the tree climbing school is available on the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/
–Alexandra McLaughlin, Penn State Extension