“WE are failing to get the basics right.” That was the headline when Mark Curtis, founder of the Forest Machine Operators Blog, put forward his views on the sector in last month’s Voices of Forestry feature.

It’s no secret that there are some massive challenges facing the industry, and Mark wasn’t beating around the bush. Operator numbers are dwindling and, if you think you’re having a hard time finding one now, give it another 20 years and it could be next to impossible.

“Even if we managed to inspire a new generation towards a career driving forestry machines, that wouldn’t improve their chances of finding work. What contractors want are experienced operators, but no-one gains experience unless they’re given a chance. Unfortunately, the cost and risk involved for contractors is currently too great,” wrote Mark, before going on to suggest that contractors be subsidised so they can train their own operators.

Forestry Journal: Brian CowanBrian Cowan

“I believe a contractor would be quite happy to take a risk on a young operator if he could sign up to a scheme where the driver’s wages in his first year – during which he was assessed by a qualified assessor and received his certificates – were classified as a tax write-off.”

Forestry doesn’t do a good job of promoting itself either, leading to a poor perception from the public – and young people in particular. Mark wrote: “Too many people think we’re just out to kill trees for profit. For too long the industry has stood back and let self-appointed experts on the sidelines declare what we’re doing is wrong.”

READ MORE: Voices of Forestry: Mark Curtis

His piece, unsurprisingly, stirred up a lot of conversation on the Blog. Among the top responses was from a contractor based in Scotland who said there was a major problem with operators, and nothing is getting done about it. “Five or ten years down the line, it will be too late and will really hurt our industry.”

Forestry Journal: Peter Guest RowlandsPeter Guest Rowlands

An operator based in the Republic of Ireland commented: “I 100 per cent agree with the industry not promoting itself. I also have three kids in school who are told that tree cutting is bad, end of story! No distinction is made between responsible, sustainable, commercial timber harvesting and battering down the rainforest. It’s a big problem that this is the view our children are being taught.”

A young Scottish operator thought that Mark hit the nail on the head about the lack of new blood coming into the industry: “I think I’m slowly getting there in terms of getting my foot in the door but so many contractors aren’t willing to give new blood a chance.

“I just wish there was some easy way to get in. I’ve been trying for years and had so many doors closed on me without anyone even taking time to know me or any of my skills with operating machinery.”

Forestry Journal: Alex Le Baud RoyAlex Le Baud Roy

Sharing their own experience, a Blog member said: “I have been a contractor all my life and got the opportunity for a job employed, so I took it. Some young supervisors have the right background, while many more can’t tell an oak from a hemlock or a harvester from a forwarder. While working as a craftsman, they can’t even put a saw chain on the right way, now they are overseeing harvesting sites! They have a degree and that’s all that matters. You guys have to make money on £8/m3 roadside, we have to make sure there is timber for the future and habitat, but they don’t understand or care about either.”

Another response said that the issue stemmed from forest managers not giving operators a fair crack of the whip: “The biggest problem I see with getting youngsters into the industry isn’t really the harvesting contractors’ fault; the problem is the forest management companies. They need to realise it takes time and give people a chance before forcing contractors to remove them from the site. There are plenty of site-management guys that have no idea what they’re talking about, but you don’t see them sacked after a week.”

Forestry Journal: Brian TicklerBrian Tickler

A retired forestry worker also chipped in: “The way I look at it, there are too many pencil-pushers and not enough people on the ground to do the jobs.”

A Blog member based in the Netherlands explained that he had given guest lessons at his former forest school after it received subsidies to get some simulators, but in his opinion, very few he dealt with showed a real passion for machines.

Mark replied: “I think with a lot of the college formats, students are bound to follow through with the teaching once they start the course, even though the trainers sometimes know in their heart and soul that they are disinterested. That’s why I was thinking it’s a better idea to subsidise the contractor individually for training his own operator.”

Elsewhere on the Blog, there was some light-hearted chatter about how best to dispose of ticks when you’re out working. “Pulling these wee feckers out me all week but this one got caught. Taking execution suggestions.”

“Soak that bastard in vodka and light it up,” was the top response – but another Blog member was quick to note that would be a waste of perfectly good vodka.

“How well do you get on with your work mates? Do you share transport? Just saying …” was another suggestion. And they just kept coming – starve it, burn it, hit it with a hammer, suffocate it, bite its head off!

The Blog’s bloodlust was even too much for the original poster, it seems. He replied to the vicious horde: “Safe to see why most of you work in the woods and not with people. It’s an industry full of serial killers!”

Head over to the Forest Machine Operators Blog on Facebook to share your take on any of this issues discussed here.