Climbing new career heights on Suffolk New College’s Skills Bootcamps

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If you have ever wanted to scale a tree with a chainsaw in hand, here’s your opportunity. Suffolk New College is running Skills Bootcamps in Arboriculture and they are free to individual learners. We caught up with arts graduate and postal worker Tara Wood, who is halfway through her course, to find out why she is switching careers and what the training is really like.

“Please give me a moment to catch my breath and take off my climbing harness,” says Tara when we first speak. It’s a Wednesday in mid-February and she has just abseiled down from the top of a 40-foot poplar tree. She is, understandably, elated by the experience: “It’s physically demanding but the view is breath-taking!”

Tara has always been fascinated by nature, having grown up in Suffolk and spent her childhood playing in the fields and woods around Needham Market. “I love being outside and active,” she says, “which is just as well, as I am currently a postie in Norwich, delivering letters in all weathers.”

She had gone straight into work on leaving school, taking various jobs, before setting her sights on university. “I was looking for something different, something interesting and had always enjoyed drawing, especially animals, birds, woodlands and landscapes. So I did a BTEC at my local college and then studied for my BA in fine art at Norwich University of the Arts.

Turning a love for nature into a professional qualification
“My degree was an excellent experience and I really developed my artistic skills, which are still nature focused. After that, I worked six years with an art gallery in Norwich and Wroxham. When that closed, I decided to look for an outdoor job and that’s when I became a postie, but it wasn’t enough.”

Tara is passionate about wildlife conservation and volunteers with her local bat group. “I have also recently volunteered as a National Trust ranger. That provided me with a great opportunity to see if it was the sort of work that I would like to do full time – and it was.”

The experience inspired her to try to gain a professional qualification that would open up her career options. “A friend, who recently trained to be a nurse, said I should look at the government Skills For Life website because it offered funded skills training. That’s when I discovered Skills Bootcamps and saw this arboriculture course at Suffolk New College’s Rural campus, near the village of Otley.”

Caring for trees and protecting the environment is a career with growth prospects
Arboriculture focuses on planting and maintaining the right trees in the right place, so they can grow to full size and old age without becoming a hazard. Arborists tend to see cutting trees down as a last resort, normally done when dealing with poorly sited or diseased trees. As Senior Tutor Carl Jacobs explains, “there’s a real need for people with arboricultural and forestry skills across the UK and that means great job opportunities”.

At the same time, he admits that these Skills Bootcamps are intensive: “You have to commit to three days a week (09:00-16:15) for 10 weeks to cover all the basic practical skills and essential theory. However, on completion, you will have earnt a number of professional qualifications that will help you find work.”

These include a LANTRA basic tree inspection course, a Level 2 Award in Practical Environmental and Conservation Skills, and four National Proficiency Test Council certificates. These, together with a one-day First Aid course, cover the foundation skills that employers in the sector demand. “With these, students can make a strong start in the industry and then gain more qualifications while working,” says Carl.

“Everyone who completed our last course went on to find good jobs in the industry – and five from this course already have full-time employment to go to. That demand makes these courses ideal for people who are keen to retrain for a rewarding career working in and caring for the natural world. The Skills Bootcamps that New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership has organised, including ours, are vital to helping people achieve a better quality of life with better pay.”

In-person, hands-on, real-world training

“This hand-on approach to learning is so engaging,” says Tara. “One of our first lessons was taking apart a chainsaw to learn how they work and how to maintain them. I’d never handled a chainsaw before but now I know how to maintain a chainsaw and use it safely.”

Suffolk New College runs the course from its Otley campus but the students get to visit sites in rural Suffolk for practical training sessions. “Just last week we were learning how to fell trees on one of the local agricultural estates,” says Tara. “Like many landowners, they have a problem with ash-dieback devastating their woodlands. We are helping them clear the dead and dying trees so they can replant with a mix of deciduous native trees and restore biodiversity.”

Tara is particularly delighted with the emphasis that Suffolk New College puts on conservation and science. “It’s really interesting and so relevant to many of the environmental challenges we face, particularly including the need to plant trees with resilience in mind. I’m particularly pleased because this has helped me to secure a full-time job offer from the Environment Agency, where I can use my new arboreal skills and knowledge.”

When Tara is not on the course, she is continuing with her postal rounds and is making good use of them to continue her learning. “I’m lucky to be working in Norwich, which has lots of trees. I’m using an app on my phone, called Picture This, to improve my tree identification skills and learn more about different species.”

Find out how you can retrain for a career in arboriculture – for free

“It’s definitely worth it,” concludes Tara, “in fact, I’m loving it more than I imagined I could. I would 100% recommend it to practical learners who are interested in conservation and woodland management. The tutors are so supportive and the fact that it is free to individuals is a huge bonus.”

If you want Skills for Life, email [email protected] today for news of our latest Skills Bootcamps.

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