Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Kurt Stenberg. Kurt Stenberg is a Regenerative Arborist and Entrepreneur. He left behind a 16-year career as a firefighter-EMT before embarking in the green industry. Kurt climbs trees to remove and prune them, but he specializes in plant health education for clients and other aspiring arborists. He owns and operates Cochrane Tree Care and maintains an attractive Instagram as @kurtthearborist, where he enjoys collaborating with other arborists and companies.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
It has been a journey. I didn’t always dream of being an arborist. I became a firefighter EMT when I was about 19 years old and worked in that industry as a first responder for about 16 years – and then expired from that career, I guess you’d say, with mental health. I was not looking after myself all of this time and was busy looking after everyone else. I had to find a new career. I thought about what I was going to do for about a year. I was looking for something that was going to still allow me to have time with my family, something that was going to require some physical fitness, as well as a bit of risk, because I wanted higher earning potential – but I also wanted to control what I was doing.
I ended up starting my own business after I saw an arborist or the profession somewhere online, and I kept doing these job tests and it kept coming back as horticulture. So I’m like, “Horticulture… I could work in a greenhouse or something like that,” but I didn’t realize arboriculture was under that umbrella, and I just fell in love with it right away. It was like a light switch went off – I knew I had to do it. I loved working with chainsaws, I loved climbing up trees and being outside in nature. It just called to me. Literally overnight, I didn’t look back and just went for it.
What does a day in the life look like for you as an arborist?
People will reach out to you because they have some sort of concern with their tree or woody shrubs. Oftentimes, it comes as a result of something being wrong, like their tree is rubbing into their house, or it looks sick or something… you’re usually there to fix something. You go by and you do a quote, or you try and book all your quotes at one time. You would have a look at the tree, see what it needs, discuss it with the client, try and sell yourself to them. When you’re going out and doing work usually involves limited equipment. I use a small truck and trailer because I’m in a small town and kind of have a bit of a nice business here where I’m the owner/operator, as well as the technician and I often work alone, which is kind of unique. Most arborists work in a team of two to four people with a truck with a dump trailer and a chipper, maybe a bucket truck to have access to higher trees.
I climb all the time for pruning or removing trees. Trees have a lifespan – if they get sick, they need to be cut down. A lot of times, there’s trees planted in the wrong area or up against buildings, so that would require climbing up and then putting up safe anchor points for not only climbing but also for rigging. Then you’d have to tie ropes to large chunks and branches, cut them off safely, and have them swing a certain direction. It’s neat because it’s also part of the transferable skills that I had with rescue and firefighting, where you had a whole plethora of tools on a rescue truck. You have to problem solve and figure out how you can use those tools to have the best outcome.
On top of that, I kind of niche myself in a bit of the health side of things. I also got some training in landscape horticulture and permaculture, which kind of overlap with arboriculture a bit, but I wanted to understand how trees interact with the environment, about the landscape in urban settings, how it’s different from the forest, what those differences are, and how they interact with all of the other landscape people have. I do a lot of health consultations, which is nice because it requires no tools – I can ride over on a motorbike and some other gas efficient vehicle and just talk about trees and how they interact with the environment underground, called the microbiology and the fungi. I get nerdy about it and feel really good, because I’m teaching people what they can do so they can have long term success with all of their plants and trees.
Would you say there are any transferable skills between your previous career and your career in the trades?
It is a complete new world, and I didn’t think there would be any transferable skills initially. It’s new in the sense that the old job was part of a team. You would move up the ladder based on seniority, not performance, but you kind of always knew where you’re going to be until you retired, whereas this left a bit of wonder. If you’re starting your own business, there’s a bit more risk there. It was actually extremely valuable in my career and all my life experiences up until that point.
The communication thing is huge. I believe having good communication can help you in any aspect of life, including working, whether you work for someone or you’re an entrepreneur, you have to communicate with clients, or your boss or your coworkers or anyone. When you’re trying to secure jobs as a business owner, it’s all about that first impression. You’re selling a service or a feeling to people, like they want to be happy when you’re done doing a job. Having that ability to communicate with all walks of life and extreme stressful environments, I think it has led me to be able to kind of understand how humans interact and what they want and what their needs are.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
On an entrepreneurial level, I’m always looking for something new to do and to grow because I get bored easily. If you have a background, knowledge, and genuine caring for the environment and the plants, that’s going to help you tons. If you’re just doing it for a job to make some money for the summer, that’s fine, but you’re not going to get much further than picking up sticks and debris and shoving them into a chipper. If you actually care and decide you want to understand it as a job… you’re going to do a lot better at it, you’re going to retain more knowledge, you’re going to wonder why things work the way they work. It’s so helpful for the trees if you know how they work biologically so you know how to cut them properly and not make mistakes to cause more harm than good, because it is possible. I’m sure there’s good and bad arborists out there that mean well, but they’re doing the wrong thing just by lack of knowledge or lack of caring. Plus, being able to handle longer days with loud noise around you. Hot environments, working in chainsaw pants, heavy labor, and then some risk involved, so you have to be tolerant to those things.
What important lessons have you learned while working in the trades?
When it comes to nature, we all can make it more difficult than it needs to be sometimes. Whatever is natural and native to the area, what nature wants to do naturally, is the best thing for trees and plants. We can try to intervene and plant things that don’t come from the certain environment you’re in, try and force it to try and fertilize it with inorganic fertilizers, and then they get sick. Then, we’re trying to apply pesticides and herbicides… these are all the wrong things to do. People are trying to look for a quick fix to make it work for them, but that’s not how things work. It may work on a very short term basis, but for the long term, things just need to be natural and cared for organically.
Winters are difficult when I’m not working – it snows and gets cold and dark by 5 p.m., so that is a bit of a challenge. I’ve learned a lot about collaboration with other people, and that having a mentor, similar to just being an apprentice under a journeyman. Because I’m walking my own kind of path here by myself, I find mentorship from some other friends that do really well with this, or they were actually instructors in the horticulture industry… to have them in your back pocket to continue on your self betterment really helps. I try to use that for anything I can in life to help with growth and learning. I’ve learned more about myself – I spend a lot of time by myself, like with the trees and not talking when you’re left with your own thoughts. It honestly ties in really nicely with my mental health.
What would you say is the most important or rewarding part of your work?
People are trying to reduce their carbon emissions, and countries and businesses are all being pushed that way. It’s like, what are you going to be left doing? What’s your purpose on earth? There’s different kinds of arborists… some cut down a lot of trees without even recommending that you could keep the tree. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, trying to promote a lot of regenerative practice, like planting and the health of trees. I’ll walk away from jobs like that – I have my own integrity that way, and I feel good about it. Even though I’ve lost a couple of jobs, I know I’ve done the right thing. I’m just training tons of people out there to look out for their plants and their trees better, so it’s going to improve the environment over time. I’m actually trying to develop more programs for arborists in regards to regenerative practice, so it’s really exciting. I’m happy to have that impact on the world.
What other ways does this career positively impact your life?
You know, I think everyone just wants to be happy. A lot of people think that money will make them happy… and it does, it’s one form of capital. But there’s so many other things. I’d rather make less money and work with a good crew of people that validate you and lift you up and make you feel better. We’re respectful of your time off to give you more time with your family, which is awesome. One of the things I love about this career is you can control your time and schedule, and that was honestly one of the things that I had to check off when I started this career. I came from a job where I was on for two days, two nights – so I was only working two days of the whole eight day cycle. I didn’t want to go to work Monday to Friday for someone, because I want to be home and not put my child in childcare. It’s fine to put your child in childcare, but we just didn’t want to do that, soI did find something that was going to give us the time to do those things.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
If you could find some sort of coach, a life coach or employment counselor, it would be nice to get help – unless you feel you can do it on your own. Find out what is important to you, do a bunch of different job tests, maybe even talk to a vocational service about what you like and what you want to get out of life. That’s what you should start with first, right. If it’s important for you to have a different type of schedule, or work with people, work indoors or outdoors… those things all matter so much.
If you make mistakes, you learn from them and learn what you want the future, but if you can sit down and think about those things first, it’ll help you hone in on what’s going to be a good job for you and what’s going to fulfill you not just financially but holistically for your whole life and keep you happy so you want to grow and get better at it. It’ll ultimately provide you with more success. Once you’ve kind of nailed down a general career, see if you can get a hold of these people that are in that industry and interview them about their job. What’s a day in their life look like? Could I come help out and just watch for a day or two and get a feel for what it’s like? These things you don’t want to show up and realize that you have to stand by a chipper and it’s super loud every day and you hate that, because you thought you got to cut trees. Find out how long it takes to move up the ladder to do your own thing, or whether that’s important to you or not. Mentorship, job shadowing, and some self preparation on what’s important to you are huge things that could really help you out.
Your life is now. Try to enjoy it now – the whole process, the good and the bad. You don’t even have to go to school. A lot of the education that I received for arboriculture was through a private training place, mentorship where I went to one- to three-day classes, and then I did a bunch of my own self reading. I was basically self taught. Those are all things that you can build and do on your own without having to follow that cookie cutter strategy like everyone else does. Just do your own thing, and do it because you love it. Don’t let anybody tell you different, and realize that you’re probably going to make a bunch of different career decisions throughout your life. What you start now may not be what you’re doing in five years. You may have five different careers – and that’s okay.
Find out what led you to where you are right now, and then unravel some of those mistakes that you made, but then also not beat yourself up realize that it was the best decision and the best way you could have done things at the time for the tools you had – but since then, you’ve learned new things. Once you start asking those questions, going down that rabbit hole… man, you can find a lot of happiness at the end of it. You can tie your career into it, which is so cool, and choose what you want to do and have it aligned with your beliefs. I think having a career isn’t your identity like I thought it was before when I was trying to be a firefighter – I was “Kurt the firefighter, career EMT”, but that’s not who I was internally.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
Recently what’s lighting me up is building some new friendships and community with some of that personal growth type stuff. My mental health recovery has led me into a variety of different circles with other first responders that are recovering and finding new careers, so learning from trauma. It sounds like it’s a weird hobby to have, but once you start taking control of the mental part of your life and understanding who you are, it becomes a big part of your life. It’s so wholesome and fulfilling to work on that, and fixing old relationships and building new ones, and just being real and authentic with yourself. That is an infinite, long journey. That takes up a lot of my time, but I try to balance that.
I have a million hobbies, but I like riding my motorbike. I have little adventure motorbikes; I ride those to go and do tree quotes to make it more fun, and visiting people to improve the communication with clients and find out what they do for work. I’ve made some amazing connections in life and professionally just through actually having conversations with clients instead of just doing the job and jet. I love spending time with my family and friends – my wife and my daughter, she’s eight years old. We do lots of activities here, so that fills up a good chunk of our time.
Our thanks to Kurt for making time to share his story and industry insights with us.