At the recent Scottish Forest & Timber Technologies regional meeting for South Scotland, Euroforest’s director of major clients Simon Coleman presented on the challenges the sector faces with regard to machine operator recruitment and retention. Fraser Rummens reports.

THE Scottish Forest & Timber Technologies (SFTT) South Scotland regional meeting took place on 7 October online to discuss the issue of the skills shortage currently engulfing the forestry sector and how this can be addressed going forward.

Opening the meeting, Eddie Addis of Tilhill, SFTT chair for South Scotland, noted how resilient the sector has been in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic: “We’ve managed to keep working throughout everything that has happened over the last six months. We’re also growing rapidly and moving forward we need to ensure that we’ve got the skills and resources in place to deliver not only what we want to achieve, but what the Scottish Government wants to achieve as well.”

Part of this, Eddie said, is ensuring that the sector has the right people in the right place at the right time. He acknowledged that, while there are many opportunities in forestry, we are not particularly good at selling those opportunities: “I think a lot of people within the industry, or who have relatives in the industry, or know people in the industry, understand what opportunities there are, but outwith that, we are generally quite poor at attracting people from out with our normal range to come and consider careers in forestry, and there are very good careers.”

Forestry Journal: Eddie Addis.Eddie Addis.

Eddie then passed over to Euroforest’s Simon Coleman, congratulating him on his recent appointment to the board of directors. Simon explained that he was there to talk about machinery operator recruitment and retention, and his thoughts on how to tackle that problem.

“The personal reason as to why I agreed to talk was that before I started working for Euroforest I was in fact a machinery operator and I was driving machines for nearly five years,” he said. “Mainly forwarders but occasionally harvesters and I started my career on machines in Ireland, doing first thinnings on very wet ground. From Ireland, I went to Sweden in 2005 and did large-scale clearance of windblown timber for storm Gudrun. I was there for roughly a year before moving to Denmark and doing clearfell and thinnings.

“I am still very passionate about machinery. I have very fond memories of my time on machines, and still love to get into the forest and watch machinery and speak to operators.”

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Euroforest, at its core, is a business that operates by purchasing, harvesting, and marketing timber, Simon explained, and it has grown steadily since it began trading 29 years ago.

“In 1991 the business was selling around half a million tonnes of timber and in 2019 the group of businesses Euroforest is now involved with is selling nearly 2.2 million tonnes. As a business, we employ around 110 people directly and we will be working with around 800 subcontractors at any one time and will be using 85 harvesters in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

“The timber industry as a whole is harvesting 10–11 million tonnes of timber a year and we are looking at relatively consistent levels of output from forests for the next 20 years.

“This sector employs 20,000 people in Scotland and three times that across the rest of the UK and we bring economic input into the UK economy of £2.5 billion. So, to put that into context of the harvesting resource that we need to achieve that, we need about 380–400 harvesters working at any one time and that’s assuming a rate of production of about 600 tonnes per week.”

Euroforest purchased a harvesting business in 2019 – Blacklock Harvesting. Based in the north of England, it was, at the time, operating seven machines. “We got into this business because we had concerns about the availability of resource going forward,” Simon explained. “For this reason, we realised that we had to secure our own resources and develop our own timber harvesting service.

“Now, we have grown that business to 15 harvesters and 18 forwarders, and we have just taken on two trainee operators, and we plan to take on three further trainee operators in 2021.”

In preparing for this meeting, Simon spoke to a number of contractors about the sector’s current operator resource: “I asked them all the same kind of questions in terms of the average age of operators driving the machines at the moment, and all of them said that their operators are in their mid to late 50s, and only about a third of the harvesting operators that are driving machines at the moment will be under 40.

Forestry Journal: Simon Coleman.Simon Coleman.

“As the industry has matured, so have our expectations of operators,” Simon went on. “We expect them to be highly professional and operate to very high levels of health and safety and environmental legislation. At the same time, we are also expecting very high levels of output.” This is putting increased pressure on operators, which has been eased somewhat by modern machines that have become more reliable and are achieving much higher output.

“The problem is, they are now being driven by guys in their 50s and 60s, and, in some cases, their 70s – we have to think about who is going to be driving these machines in the long term.”

We could look abroad, Simon said, but issues around COVID-19, travel restrictions and Brexit uncertainty with freedom of movement make this difficult right now, so the next generation of operators is going to have to come from within the UK.

Large contractors such as Jim Wilmer & Sons took on six trainees in 2018 and put them through a formal training programme, while Blacklock Harvesting recently did the same with two trainees, with a further three planned for next year. This means contractors are having to invest considerable time, money, and resources when they look to take on new trainees – an option not available to smaller contractors.

“More harvesting contractors are offering existing operators the opportunity to be employed, with roughly 25–30 per cent of operators working for these businesses now on the books,” Simon said, noting that contractors are also making greater use of social media to engage both internally and externally, to promote their own businesses and the sector as a whole.

So, what does the timber harvesting industry need? “I think at a high level we need organisations to promote new people to the industry; we need to raise the profile and awareness of forestry, especially among young people; we need to be active in engaging with schools in rural areas, adjacent to large areas of forest cover; we need organisations like Skills Development Scotland and careers advisors in schools to promote forestry, especially operation, as a career path.”

Colleges and learning centres need to be offering courses that are suitable, with high-quality training, and a broad range of courses that reflect the diversity of forestry skills. “Courses like the Barony has been offering are what is needed, but I think we are desperately short of high-quality trainers and perhaps using good-quality machine operators is a way of connecting the college experience to the actual forest and the long-term experience of driving machinery, which does have its highs and lows but can be incredibly rewarding financially,” Simon said. “And we need to monitor and coach people when they come in and inspire and support students as they enter the workplace.”

This shouldn’t just fall to colleges though, Simon said. Contractors have to play their part.

“I think contractors should be able to access educational funding to recruit and train local people interested in the industry; contractors should be offered financial assistance if they can recruit local people in their geographical area so we can try and get people working close to home; and new operators should be employed rather than self-employed wherever possible to support their development.

“We all need to accept that forestry is only an attractive career if it can be flexible to the demands of young people now, especially young working families with children.”

On retaining operators, Simon said: “The retention of staff is a problem at all levels of forestry. There are simply not enough people, and we need to be able to offer good-quality training at all levels and encourage more people into the industry. Once there are more people in the industry, there are more people to drive machines, which will drive efficiencies of machines, and will mean that operators don’t need to work such long hours, a long way from home.

“We need more long-term contracts and working agreements, with both the state and private sector, to allow continued investment in machinery, and security of employment for people at all levels, and hopefully we can retain the staff that do come into the sector.”