When George Bourne joined the Forest Machine Operators Blog in 2015, aged 22, he could scarcely have imagined it would lead him to the vast forests of the west coast of the United States of America and British Columbia, Canada.

GROWING up in south-west Scotland, not far from the coastal town of Portpatrick, George had always loved being outdoors – in particular, cutting firewood with the family chainsaw. It was while attending Stranraer Academy that the prospect of a career in forestry occurred to him.

“We were visited by a representative from Barony College, who came to speak about the various courses they offered, including a diploma programme in forest mechanisation,” he told Forestry Journal. “It was as a result of this visit that I began considering forestry as a possible career.”

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Leaving secondary school at 17, George immediately began studying at what is now SRUC Barony Campus. The visit from the college rep and the guidance of his school’s career advisor meant he had no difficulty in finding the information he needed.

He continued: “Once at Barony, I found myself well suited to the school’s rural setting and hands-on approach to teaching, and both of my lecturers, Tom Karas and Paul Fotheringham, were immensely helpful and encouraging. After two years, I graduated with a diploma in forest mechanisation.”

Upon graduating, George enrolled in an eight-week harvester and forwarder training course offered by the Barony, which provided him with the in-seat experience needed to find employment.

“In the programme, we worked 50–60 hours a week on site, operating the machinery. At the same time, I gained my basic chainsaw tickets, which would prove useful in the future,” explained George. “By the time I had completed the course I had found a job operating a harvester for J. D. McBurney.”

George spent four years working for the Dumfries-based contractor before taking the initial step that would see him end up travelling stateside to further his career.

“While working in Scotland, I joined the Forest Machine Operators Blog on Facebook, where I learned there was growing demand for experienced harvester and forwarder operators in North America. Shortly after learning this, I heard that Louis Mann of L&L Inc, Oregon and Matt Mattioda of Miller Timber Services, Oregon were going to be visiting Scotland to see some of the latest Ponsse machinery. I knew Louis’s son, Terry, through the blog and got his help in arranging a meeting with them.

“The meeting gave me confidence in the job opportunities available in Oregon, and although I was still enjoying my work in Scotland, I was eager for and interested in this new adventure. In May of 2016 I booked a one-way flight to Oregon. Once there, I started the difficult challenge of obtaining a work visa. My immigration lawyer informed me it would take a year and up to $6,000. However, I was offered a job with Miller Timber Services who offered to help me secure my visa, fast-tracking the process and decreasing the price. Although it still took a lot of time and paperwork, by 2017 I had an 18-month visa and began work. There were many limitations placed on the visa, including that I could not apply for an extension once it was completed.”

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The state of Oregon is quite a distance from the woodlands of Dumfries and Galloway – some 4,500 miles – but more than that, it is a totally different environment, both in terms of landscape and culture – something George noticed immediately.

“The work itself was also very different – I went from clear-cutting Sitka spruce in Scotland to thinning Douglas fir in Oregon. But these differences made for lots of learning opportunities and for new and interesting work. In particular, the sorting system varies greatly from how the UK system functions – rather than six to twelve sort options, in the US there were often only two choices: ‘sawlog’ or ‘chip and saw’.

“Additionally, working in Oregon also meant getting to work on forest fire prevention. There was one instance where I was sent to work a fire in southern Oregon, and while I was operating the harvester cutting fire lines, I had a team of 60 people working behind me to chip what I cut.”

He went on: “Working for Miller Timber took me all over Oregon, Washington and northern California. It’s a large company with over 28 harvesters and forwarders, and because we were mostly thinning, one block would usually only last a month or two before we moved on to the next. I enjoyed the travel immensely as it took me to all different parts of the scenic countryside and allowed me to learn new things with every new block, while being paid well to do so. The work varied from cable-assist thinning, to salvage thinning in burnt forests, to thinning in the northern California redwood forests.”

Working in northern California proved to be something of a career highlight for George. He explained: “In 2017 I got the opportunity to be one of the first people to do thinning in the California redwoods with a harvester. The foresters there had been struggling to find a solution to the young stands of redwood that had near stopped growing as a result of over-dense spacing. Miller Timber was asked to send their best man to tackle the job, but he was busy, so they sent me. The whole thinning project was considered an experiment and most of the foresters there had never seen a harvester or forwarder, only feller-bunchers and skidders.

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“The job was a challenge, as the average tree was 15 inches at the butt and 80 to 100 ft tall, and the trees pressed against one another in big clumps growing out of old-growth stumps that were themselves up to 20 ft in diameter. I had to carefully fell and process the less merchantable trees in these clumps while leaving the best undamaged. I stayed there working for eight months, and it was easily my favourite place to live in the states as the California weather was perfect and I was never more than 10 miles from the sea. Working in the redwoods also gave me plenty of opportunities to see new and exciting wildlife, including plenty of black bears and even the occasional mountain lion. It was also really great to be working so nearby to some of the most famous forests in the world, containing some of the biggest trees in the world – all of which were incredible to see.”

Time flies when you’re having fun, and soon enough his 18-month visa was due to expire. Not quite ready to return home to Scotland, George, now 25, applied for a Canadian work visa.

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“I’d visited British Columbia (BC) several times before and knew I’d enjoy working there, so in August 2018, right after my visa had expired in the States, I drove north to see more of BC. Most logging in BC is very different from the cut to length at the stump practice in Europe, as in BC tree length systems using feller-bunchers and skidders are more common. However, some companies such as Freya Logging, where I now work, have started using harvesters and forwarders. Because the use of these machines is still relatively new in BC, there is a lot of demand for experienced operators, which made finding work quite easy.”

Having worked in three very different forest environments, George’s work has varied greatly. He explained: “In Scotland, I was mostly clear-cutting spruce, whereas in the USA the majority of the work was thinning and cable-assist jobs, and in BC it’s a middle ground where the majority of the blocks are clear-cut, with the exception of trees under six inches diameter, which are left in place to grow more.

“In each country, the sawmill requirements have also varied greatly, as does the level of emphasis placed on environmental protection and safety. The forests themselves have also been quite different. Whereas in Scotland and Oregon the blocks were fairly uniform, composed of trees of the same age and species, the stands I’m working now in BC often contain upwards of four tree species of different ages and sizes. Working in the Pacific Northwest has also brought about the additional challenge of large predators roaming the forest. In Scotland I took for granted being able to walk the block and make my harvesting plan; in BC I need to be conscious of mountain lions, bears and wolves, which has taken some getting used to.”

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George continues to work in BC. Once his Canadian visa expires, he and his girlfriend would like to go to New Zealand, although he’s not decided yet whether it will be for business or pleasure. After that, he reckons he will be homeward bound. With a considerable amount of industry experience under his belt at only 26, how has his view of the industry changed since he first starting studying?

“When I started studying, I knew very little about the work I do now,” he said.  “The last seven years working in this industry, and now in three different countries, has shown me how diverse the career opportunities are, and that there is potential to do this sort of work all over the world. So far, everywhere I have worked seems to be experiencing a shortage in supply of experienced and qualified machine operators, making the opportunities near limitless for skilled operators eager to travel.”

Attracting young people into the industry continues to prove challenging, as George has seen. The opportunities are there but not enough people are taking them, and he reckons a clearer career path is needed.

“To be fair, it is difficult to promote hard work and fairly antiquated employment practices but there needs to be a clearer career path to encourage young people into the industry. The eight-week harvester and forwarder training course I did is no longer available, which is a shame because it was a vital step between getting my diploma and finding work, and without it I think I would have found the transition more difficult.

“Further, I think the industry is hindered by a lack of awareness about what exactly we do and how we do it, particularly by the younger demographic. If young people don’t know much about the industry, and consequently the career opportunities, then it can be very challenging to know where to begin or what steps to take. When I was in Oregon I saw quite a few groups of schoolchildren on field trips out to learn more about the industry and where the products they use every day come from – more initiatives like this would teach young people about the industry, and hopefully encourage them to consider it as a career choice.”

George is living proof that there is a bounty of opportunities out there for a rewarding career. His advice to young people interested in pursuing it is simple: “Operators with no experience often find it difficult to get a start in the industry, as most contractors are looking for experienced operators only, which, considering the cost of the machines and cost of lost production during the training process, is a fair decision. So, you are unlikely to find a job offer for inexperienced operators.

“However, experience isn’t everything. Every job I’ve had required training and I gained this by explaining to the boss why I thought I would be an asset to the company. Showing initiative, willingness to learn and the ability to show up on time and work in a professional manner goes a long way, and those qualities don’t necessarily come from years of experience in the seat. All it takes is having the right attitude.”