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Every day’s a school day they say, and for Julian Vickers, he’s training the next generation of arborists while furthering his own knowledge at the same time.

The Black Summer of devastating bushfires in the 2019-20 season brought untold tragedy, but also acts of heroism, incredible effort and old-fashioned Aussie mateship. Of all the people and services called into action, members of the arboriculture industry played an important role. With fires burning close to 20 million hectares across Australia, the clean-up and “make safe” work required was and still is extraordinary, with arborists called in to help assess and remove dangerous trees along thousands of kilometres of fire-affected roads.

Amongst that number was Julian Vickers, whose combined experience as both an arborist and as Lance Corporal in the Army Reserve proved indispensable. After a month of marking so-called “killer trees” (identified with a big yellow ‘K’ sprayed on their trunks) and helping with their removal, he was awarded a Bronze Commendation for outstanding efforts on Operation Bushfire Assist from the Army’s 4th Combat Service Support Battalion. Quite rightly, he’s proud of his and his colleagues’ efforts.

“They were long days with plenty of work,” Julian said. “After a whole month work was still going on, but at least the roads could safely open again. The contractors came in after us. I’m with the Corps of Transport, but I’ve got all the arb tickets, so I was attached to the Engineers during the bushfires. With my ticket in advanced tree felling, I was there to advise and remove the killer trees.”

Now practically a full-time trainer, Julian works at Arbortrim Australia Pty Ltd, a business providing arboriculture qualifications and intent on improving the quality of arboriculture work in Australia. They work closely with industry to ensure the programs offered are relevant and effective, pointing out that qualified arborists are on the list of skill shortages both at state and national levels. Imperative, therefore, that the training given is matched to the real-world work needed in the field.

“Julian was awarded a Bronze Commendation for outstanding efforts on Operation Bushfire Assist from the Army’s 4th Combat Service Support Battalion.”

It’s been a varied road for Julian to reach this point. He was raised on a dairy farm in New Zealand before moving to another in Victoria’s West Gippsland region aged 10. A relocation to the Upper Yarra Valley followed, ensuring his formative years were spent enjoying the great outdoors. “I did labouring type jobs until my mid-20s, then joined the Army,” he said. “I got out after a few years and my little brother, who was then a climbing arborist, asked me to join him at the tree company he worked for. I was dragging branches through back yards a lot, so I got a bit sick of that after a couple of years. I obviously liked parts of it, but was carrying big logs and it was very physical work.”

He decided to move to a larger company on Melbourne’s fringes, meaning council contracts. “I was doing reactive work like storm damage, and also powerline vegetation work, running a crew, all for about ten years,” the 41-year-old said. All the while Julian had kept close ties with the Army, staying in the Reserves throughout his arborist career. “I did my junior leader course within the Army, and got the equivalent of a TAE (Training and Assessment) through the Reserves. I managed to transfer these to civilian equivalents after doing a couple of extra units, and came to Arbortrim as a trainer and assessor a few years ago.”

Julian had been a student with Arbortrim in the past as he’d do annual refresher courses with his job, so when a role came up he jumped at it. Training others in a job in which you’re experienced can be a terrific career move, but it’s not for everyone. You’ve got to be organised, patient, confident and a strong communicator. Being a “people person” is damn useful too – we’ve all had teachers through our lives who are anything but, and it’s hard work learning effectively from such types. “I’m a bit of an extrovert,” Julian explained, “and good at talking to people. In a training role I could do more of that. I was getting older, my body was getting a bit worn, and arb work isn’t something you can do forever.”

Julian’s worked in the bucket of EWPs (elevating work platform) but never been a climber, so he currently teaches practically all of the arb units bar rigging and climbing. “I do a lot of vegetation management training, open chainsaw courses, Certificate III in Arboriculture and the like,” he said. “My average week could be anything; today I’m teaching people at Parks Victoria to operate a wood chipper.” This was said during our chat at about 6.30am on a chilly winter’s morning. Julian didn’t start work until 8am that day, but was already on site preparing for his lesson. It’s going that extra mile that can make the difference between a good teacher and an average one.

His students include people working in the industry who need their tickets, but on open courses he could be teaching the likes of landowners who, for example, simply want to do a chainsaw course for cutting firewood. “I’ll also train people in the SES, the CFA, grounds people, EWP operators, and from all walks of life, really,” Julian said. As expected, he’s a champion of professionals and others bettering themselves and upskilling through relevant courses. “There’s always the need for more training. I don’t think you should be doing any type of dangerous work without being correctly trained. For any type of tool or equipment we use, you must be trained on it correctly, know how to properly maintain them and know the correct PPE (personal protective equipment) to have.”

If you work in the arb industry long enough, sadly, you’ll see incidents that lead to injuries or worse. It’s something nobody likes to witness, and Julian said he’s pleased to see positive changes since he began working. “We’re quite a small industry, and people within it are talking about training and safety a lot more. Things have been positively changing, with the industry bettering itself and being more professionally recognised. You need to stay safe. Look after your mates. It’s a dangerous industry if you become complacent.”

While Julian suggests more legislation and quality training is needed to improve the overall arboriculture industry, he speaks positively about the future. “There’ll be more work available, and more varied roles,” he explained. “The same factors remain: you need to be keen, want to learn and turn up on time, but there are good opportunities.

“Training others in a job in which you’re experienced can be a terrific career move, but it’s not for everyone.”

In general it can be a very physically demanding job, and you need to take care of yourself and pace yourself, but there are other roles to play. You can be an EWP operator, you can be a groundsman. As I’ve proved, you don’t have to be a climber. Just make sure you get your Cert III in Arboriculture and you’ll be a lot more desirable.”

Julian is currently working towards a Diploma in Arboriculture – he may be in his 40s, but quite rightly, we should never stop learning – and always with an eye to the future. “I’m pretty happy with where I’m at at the moment,” he said, “and it’s still a career I’d recommend to others. After all, there aren’t many jobs where you can be at a different beautiful site every day working alongside good people.”

For more info visit www.arbortrim.com.au

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