Climbing to the top: An apprentice’s trail to arboriculture – Liam Balfour

by | Feb 9, 2024 | Apprentices, Features, Latest, Opinion

Taking place between the 5 and 11 February 2024, National Apprenticeship Week highlights the popular alternative to joining the world of work. We teamed up with Merrist Wood College, the 400-acre, multi-award-winning college that specialises in the land-based industries, to find out more.

Name: Liam Balfour

Industry: Arboriculture 

Course/apprenticeship:  Level 2 Arborist Standard

How did you first come into the industry?

When I finished school, I started doing tree surgery as a job just to earn money as I was at college doing plumbing. A few years later I wanted a change in career, so I decided to go back with the company I started off with and realised this is the career path for me.

Can you tell us a bit about your apprenticeship?

I started my in February 2023 with Nichols and Sons and began my apprenticeship in September at Merrist Wood.

At the early stage of my apprenticeship, I am mostly completing ground-based tasks, such as clearing and processing tree arisings and ground-based pruning. I have also had the opportunity for some tree climbing, with my mentor Connor, to develop aerial skills ahead of my NPTC course with Merrist Wood College.

My job role is cutting and clearing on the ground, chipping tree work arisings, maintaining a safe worksite, interaction with clients and supporting my colleagues on worksites.

How big is the company?

It is a small family run business with three of us on site most days. We take on plenty of work, and are always booked up several months in advance. We take on small pruning jobs to large contracts, anything from half a day up to a week

The services we offer are veteran tree management, Tree planting, reductions, pruning, deadwood removal, dismantling and felling and groundworks including stump grinding. We primarily work with domestic clients in Wimbledon, Sutton and Wallington area.

Why choose an apprenticeship?

I chose an apprenticeship so I can further on my learning with knowledge and practical skills including my NPTC’s so I can become a qualified arborist. I also chose the apprenticeship route because I enjoy working and learning outside.

I work Monday to Thursday, starting at 7am and finishing between 2-4pm. I attend college weekly on a Friday.

What are the biggest challenges that you’re experiencing at the moment?

My biggest challenges that I’m facing at work currently is being accurate with a throwline. I am practicing with Connor to develop this skill, both on the job and back at the yard once our days’ work is finished. This will help me achieve good anchor points from the ground and enable me to be more efficient at climbing.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

My biggest achievement so far has been passing my chainsaw maintenance and cross cutting NPTC qualification and then implementing these skills at work.  

What are your plans for the future?

My ultimate plan for the future is to start a company of my own, to have employees, and have a successful career in Arboriculture.

If you had any words of wisdom for the future generations joining the industry, what would they be?

How big would you dream if you knew you couldn’t fail?


NATIONAL APPRENTICESHIP WEEK (NAW) IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THE EDUCATION AND SKILLS SECTOR TO CELEBRATE THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF APPRENTICES AROUND THE COUNTRY AND THE POSITIVE IMPACT THEY MAKE TO COMMUNITIES, BUSINESSES, AND THE WIDER ECONOMY.”

According to the government, an apprenticeship is a paid job where the employee learns and gains valuable experiences. Combining on-site training with classroom based learning, apprenticeships spend on average 20% of their time in a college or university environment, allowing for up to 80% of their time to be used for hands-on, paid experience. Leading to a nationally recognised qualification, apprenticeships continue to grow in popularity.

We teamed up with Merrist Wood College, the 400-acre, multi-award-winning college that specialises in the land-based industries, to find out more.

“GET THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: THE ABILITY TO EARN WHILE YOU LEARN.” – MERRIST WOOD COLLEGE

When becoming an apprentice, you’ll be working for a company – receiving wages, holiday pay, and statutory sick pay, whilst also training or studying for a formal qualification. Merrist Wood College work alongside businesses that provide genuine jobs where apprentices are treated and respected like any other employee. They typically work a minimum of 30 hours a week on a contract that lasts at least 12 months. Programmes usually last for between one to two years and offer a direct route into employment. “Employers are keen to hire people who can hit the ground running,” says Merrist Wood College.

“APPRENTICESHIPS AREN’T JUST FOR SCHOOL LEAVERS: NEARLY A THIRD OF OUR CURRENT APPRENTICES ARE OVER THE AGE OF 19. SO, WHATEVER YOUR AGE, GET IN TOUCH TO KICKSTART YOUR CAREER!” – MERRIST WOOD COLLEGE