Phil Sparrow interrupts his tour of the sawmills of Northumbria to reflect on the issue of recruitment and his encounter with a young man who gave him hope for the future.

AFTER 30 years of teaching, I decided to work in a sawmill. How this came about is a long story, but essentially it was a temporary move to help out a friend. What began with working as an occasional stacker behind the Dankart quickly progressed to being chief gate-maker and delivery driver. The contrast with teaching couldn’t have been more different. My first twenty-something years in teaching were wonderful. Thereafter, from the onset of the Blair regime, the job became more that of a social worker and not a career I had wished to pursue, so 30 years was a good milestone at which to stop.

Also, after a lifetime of sport (rugby, football, rowing and triathlon), various body parts were well and truly clapped out and in need of urgent replacement. This made life in the sawmill increasingly challenging. The problem is, everything in a sawmill is heavy and liable to hurt you in some way. All the sawmill owners I have met are well aware of this and go to extraordinary lengths to protect their staff. However, trees are strange things and some small, innocent-looking offcut, branch or chunk of bark can be as hazardous as a 12’ x 8” x 8”. As my knees and hips continued to deteriorate, negotiating this tricky landscape became ever more difficult and after five years (and prior to my knee replacements) I decided to call it a day. I was sad. I loved the job and the camaraderie of the lads. After years of working with pompous, deluded, self-important individuals who’d never get a job doing anything else, working in a physical environment with real people seemed a lot more honest.

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Towards the end of my five-year stint, I tried to help the mill owner with recruitment. It seemed increasingly difficult to get young people to come into a labour-intensive, dirty, temperature-variable and tiring occupation. Modern youths, it seemed, were far more attracted to sitting at a computer terminal for eight hours a day than doing something involving physical exertion. Certain individuals came and went. Despite government rural transport incentive schemes offering support with the purchase of motorised transport, getting to the sawmill by 8 a.m. seemed a real challenge. It appeared our new generation of workers just wasn’t cut out for getting up early. As the first few days wore on, you could see the new recruits physically wilt until, by day four, the call arrived to say they were suffering from some kind of flu. They tended to come back Friday (as that was pay day), but some didn’t even do that and were never seen again.

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Around the same time, I’d been in the local pub chatting to some old estate workers. We were discussing the problem of recruitment, and in true ‘old estate worker’ style they were adamant everything was a lot rosier when they were young. It reminded me of my grandfather in the 1970s, when I grew my hair long and bought loons. No one would employ me and I was on a ‘road to nowhere’ (later a hit for Talking Heads). Everything was far better in his day, according to him, until I pointed out that people then were deformed with rickets and crippled by polio, to name but a couple of downsides. My grandfather studied me wistfully, realised I had a point and changed the subject.

The old estate workers blamed almost everything on mechanisation; fewer workers, loss of countryside skills, fewer or no apprentices, decline of rural accommodation and, of course, lazy youths who wanted everything given to them with no effort. The harvesters, however, took the bulk of the blame. I inwardly dismissed their argument, but over the next few days began to think more analytically about it. Northumberland is a vast county and, yes, we have one of the largest man-made forests in the UK in Kielder. There are also several other big forests for commercial use. This is forester heaven. A million-pound investment in machinery can be repaid fairly quickly as they munch their way through acre after acre of virgin conifer plantations. But what Northumberland also has are numerous numbers of smaller packets of woodland, many of them mixed. Foresters don’t like these as they’re non-commercial – or at least they were.

These smaller packets, however, all need managing. The old guys were right to some extent. The people who would have done this in the past have now all retired or died. With a huge rise in demand for hardwood logs for wood burners and a growth in the biofuel market, these little packets suddenly have a growing commercial value. The question is: is there anyone out there who has the skills to exploit this new opportunity?

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I must now return to my last few months at the sawmill. Just as we were beginning to lose all hope in the youth of today, up popped a young lad from a farm up the valley. He’d been helping with the lambing and, having popped into the local pub for a pint, had run into the mill owner, recognising him due to the fact he was wearing a ‘sex on the beach’ T-shirt. Being the third sibling in his farming family meant this lad had to seek out his fortune elsewhere. He explained he was looking for work and so the mill owner invited him along the following day.

From the moment Danny arrived at the mill you could tell he was different. He arrived on time every day regardless of the weather and by whatever means available. Sometimes this involved a seven-mile cycle in freezing conditions in the dark and over very undulating countryside. He worked all day flat out, and if and when periods of slack appeared he looked for other things to do. He didn’t say an awful lot and kept himself to himself, but you could tell from watching that he was quietly taking it all in. He demonstrated something a lot of people these days fail to show and that is initiative. As you may know, a sawmill is a constantly evolving and changing environment where lots of things can happen. You need people to keep their eyes and ears open at all times and try to anticipate events.

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While his own father’s farm couldn’t offer him a future, it could facilitate storage and protection from the elements in its many outbuildings and barns. Danny had noticed the daily accumulation of offcuts at the sides of the cross-cut saw, and the accumulation of offcuts in general throughout the yard. They collected in great heaps and were eventually taken away by lorry to a local chipboard factory for processing. Very soon he had arranged with the owner for loads to be taken to the farm, where on dark winter evenings he would carefully rota groups of friends to convert them into bags of kindling to sell in the local area – and all after a full day’s work!

Although my physical involvement with the mill was coming to an end, I was keen to monitor the progress of this new recruit. Like me, he spent time talking to the old retired estate workers, listening, learning and generally extracting as much knowledge as possible. He was clearly ambitious and an independent thinker and, in a strange way, embodied the very thing I’d tried to achieve as a teacher over all those years. I left the mill, but soon after he contacted me, asking if I would write a reference for him to support an application for a rural grant. The aim of the grant was to promote rural enterprise among the young. He was 19 years old, incredibly hard working, driven like there was no tomorrow and clearly an aspiring entrepreneur. Exactly what this country needs, I thought. I studied the forms, filled in my section, wrote a glowing reference and submitted it. His plan was to use the grant to help towards the purchase of a kindling machine. The demand for his neatly packaged kindling was increasing and he’d carefully worked out the exact cost per bag after all costs to the point of a penny. I was impressed.

We waited patiently for what seemed an eternity for the rural grant enterprise committee to make its decision. Apparently, only one person in that geographical area was eligible and there were two applicants. The decision was made and the grant went to the son of a large landowner in the area. I was furious. Here was a lad working all the hours God gave him, in any weather, and who needed a bunk up. Surely that’s what the system should be all about?

We met for a pint and I noticed that there was no malice. I could see in his head he’d moved on to his next plan.

“What do you know about Canada?” he asked.

“What do you know about heather?” I replied.

To be continued...

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