Answering the challenge of how to encourage more new entrants to timber haulage is a new initiative spearheaded by Neil Stoddart of Creel Consulting. Forestry Journal was invited to spend a day at the most recent Timber Haulage Academy, held at sites across Ayrshire, to find out how it is attracting fresh talent to the sector.

IT’S no secret that the world of timber haulage has a problem attracting new blood. 

Writing for this magazine last year in Voices of Forestry, Neil Stoddart said haulage had been sleepwalking into a crisis for over a decade. As the nationwide shortage of HVG drivers made headlines, with big logistics firms struggling to attract new recruits and supermarket shelves going bare, he said attracting new drivers to forestry would prove even more challenging.

However, he’s clearly a man who likes a challenge, as at that time he was already working on a project to help bring in some fresh faces.

Launched earlier this year with two events in Inverness and Ayrshire, the Timber Haulage Academy is a new initiative developed by Creel Consulting and FISA, supported by Confor with a range of industry partners, designed to uncover some of the timber lorry drivers of the future and get them behind the wheel for the first time. 

READ MORE: Forestry Journal's Voices of Forestry: Neil Stoddart, Creel Consulting

Its aim is to offer a pathway into forest haulage, helping candidates decide on whether a career delivering timber is right for them and provide them with some baseline experience as a starting point for applying for roles within the sector.

“For the longest time, everyone in timber haulage has been complaining about the lack of new entrants, yet there is no recognised route in,” said Neil. “If you’re a farmer’s son who’s driven tractors and trailers and you happen to know a local haulier you might have a chance. But other than that, there’s no way to try it out and find out if it might be for you.

“Until you’ve actually sat up in a timber crane you might well think that’s the life you want. But when you get up there, you may find you don’t fancy doing that five times a day. So something that provides an arena for people to have a go is really valuable.

“I ran the idea for the academy past Andy Leitch at Confor who thought it could probably get some funding from Skills Development Scotland. So I put together the initial programme and proposed it to them and they really liked it. It ticks a lot of boxes, from COVID recovery to the green economy, rural sector jobs and so on.

“Then we were able to bring James Jones on board, EGGER, Glennons, Tilhill and others. It really snowballed. Everyone has been keen to get involved because they’re all facing the same challenges. They all know we’re going to have a shortage of drivers in the next few years and we need to act now to do something about it.”  

Candidates who applied for the programme were told they would receive a CPC +F qualification, two days of timber crane training, including in a forest environment, and two days of forest and wood processor site visits.

The first academy, held in Inverness, saw considerable success, with two participants, a former hairdresser and retired police officer, finding employment in the industry shortly afterwards, with a haulage firm and sawmill respectively.

The most recent was held across Ayrshire, with involvement from a range of firms with operations in the area, including JST Services, EGGER, Glennon Brothers, ABP and Tilhill.

Candidates were selected from a wide range of applicants, which included those who already had some limited experience of driving and complete novices. An open mind and positive attitude were valued above all else. However, the oft-repeated statement that haulage ‘isn’t for everyone’ quickly proved itself to be true as, out of the six applicants selected, two failed to show up and one dropped out after the first day.

Those who stayed the course were treated to a series of eye-opening excursions to a variety of sites timber hauliers will be expected to go to, with classroom training and plenty of opportunities to get some hands-on experience with HGVs and cranes.

They included Garry Tweedie from Elgin, a driver in the RAF, who had been investigating possibilities for a post-military career.

He said: “I do want to try something different. I found out about this through Facebook and thought I’d give it a try, so sent an email asking if I could apply and was eventually accepted.”

Maurice Crisp, from Arran, changed career last year, becoming a driver for a haulage firm on the island.

He said: “I worked for Scottish Water for the last 16 years, but got fed up with the corporate culture. An opportunity came up at the haulage company and I thought, ‘I’m 53, I might not get another chance to change careers’. 

Forestry Journal:  Ben, Garry and Maurice on the harvesting site. Ben, Garry and Maurice on the harvesting site.

“I did my Class 2 licence in December, so I’ve been driving since the New Year. The company is small, with only 12 drivers, so even now, just driving Class 2s, I get quite a bit of variety.”

At 29, Ben Mackay from Inverness was the youngest of the group, and revealed he had also undertaken Confor’s introduction to forest machine operating, a sister course to the haulage academy.

He said: “I’ve been in and out of construction for ages, but got frustrated with companies not giving me a permanent job. I wanted more of a stable career, so I went to the Job Centre and asked what they could do to help. I hadn’t given much thought to forestry before, but this was one of the courses they suggested. Last week I was driving the forwarders, this week I’m doing this. Already I’m wondering why more young people aren’t taking an interest in it.”

The Monday saw Sandra Borland of Benslie Training deliver the new CPC+F course developed by FISA and Creel Consulting. The seven-hour classroom-based course, held at Killoch Training Centre, covers the FISA forest haulage safety manual, accident statistics and reporting, workplace safety in the forest, working at height, secure loading and more.

The group from the Timber Haulage Academy were among the first people in the country to undertake this new course, which Neil would like to be taught far and wide.

He explained: “Ideally, I’d like a lot more people across the industry to be doing this training. Lorry drivers are required to do five blocks of seven hours of CPC training every five years, but it’s not always relevant to their area. I thought we should make a module specific to forestry, and not only for new entrants. And the bigger stakeholders like Forestry and Land Scotland, Natural Resource Wales and Forestry England have all reacted really positively towards it.

“It’s not just timber hauliers going into the woods. There’s also low-loader drivers, fuel tanker drivers and plant delivery drivers (trees, tubes and stakes) who’ve never been given any training on the hazards in the forests. A diesel tanker driver could be delivering heating oil today and dropping off fuel at a harvesting site 10 miles in the woods tomorrow, but he’s had no training in forestry. 

“The first trial course we did had a room half full of drivers and half with forest managers. That was brilliant, because everyone was sparking off each other, highlighting problems, coming up with solutions. It brought a lot to the surface and really got people communicating. So I hope, going forward, a lot of companies will be getting their FWMs to do it as well.”

Forestry Journal: A busy morning at the Glennon Brothers weighbridge.A busy morning at the Glennon Brothers weighbridge.

On Tuesday, delegates had the chance to get behind the wheel of a genuine timber lorry, provided by JST Services, under the supervision of David Dalgleish of Dalgleish Training Services.

While not operating a crane (yet), they each got a few hours’ experience of driving, shunting, reversing and parking. 

Wednesday’s visits to EGGER Barony, Glennon Brothers in Troon and ABP Port of Ayr gave a flavour of some of the sites new drivers could be expected to transport logs to.
Based in Auchinleck, East Ayrshire, EGGER Barony is a chipboard production and wood recycling plant manufacturing around 400,000 m³ of raw chipboard each year. Hundreds of lorries come through the plant each week, delivering roundwood, chip and recycled wood. The tour began at the sampling station, where fresh lorry-loads are tested to check how dry the timber is.

Wood purchasing manager Ross Chapman talked through the conduct that is expected of drivers arriving on site.

Forestry Journal: ABP Port of Ayr’s Liebherr material handlers are eye-catching examples of significant investment to improve efficiency.ABP Port of Ayr’s Liebherr material handlers are eye-catching examples of significant investment to improve efficiency.

He said: “The core message, above everything else, is you have to get the paperwork right. When you get onto site, you should have a wallet of paper with all your barcodes and pins, carefully organized. It’s not just a case of waving a piece of paper at someone.

"It is an integral part of the job, showing traceability, where payment’s based, ensuring security. The paperwork links everything together.”
He went on to describe the ‘rigorous’ site inductions process new drivers go through.

“The whole point of it is to keep drivers and our people safe on site,” he said. “We look at things like PPE, the correct way to conduct yourself, where to go. We have a penalty point system, the same as driving on the road. You’ll get points for overloading, incorrect PPE, speeding on site, being cheeky, etc. 10 points gets a week-long ban. For serious breaches, like walking around the yard, it could be indefinite.

“Bans are few and far between, but the system does promote safe working practices. If you go to a site and the procedures aren’t clearly spelled out, that’s when the alarm bells should start ringing. It might look strict, but it’s there for your safety.”

A 30-minute drive to Troon on the Ayrshire coast provided the group with an insight into a very different operation. One of the largest sawmills in the UK, Glennon Brothers brings in 300,000 tonnes of logs each year and generates around 165,000 m³ of sawn wood.

Its specialty is construction timber used in a wide variety of operations, notably its own on-site timber-frame production wing, Alexander Timber Design, which builds 1,800 timber-frame houses a year.

Forestry Journal: At the sampling station at EGGER Barony.At the sampling station at EGGER Barony.

Speaking at the weighbridge, forestry manager Alex Murray explained that as well as paperwork and safety, another key consideration for drivers (at least those delivering to Glennon) is quality. He said: “We expect drivers hauling into this factory to have a keen eye for quality. If you’re in the forest picking up logs for us, you’ll get to know our specification; what is and isn’t fit for Troon, what will be turned away.

“We would expect you to set those logs aside in the forest and say you’re not taking them. The best drivers will do that for us, but it doesn’t always happen. In an extreme situation, a lorry-load of logs will arrive here, there’ll be a quality inspection and if it’s that bad, which thankfully doesn’t happen often, they’ll be sent away.

“It’s a disaster for drivers if that happens. It costs your employer hundreds of pounds to get you here only for the quality inspector to say it’s not good enough. Where do you go with it? Sawlogs coming in here will receive about £100 a tonne. Take them away for biomass and you’re looking at £50 a tonne. There are massive financial implications. So a big part of your job is quality.”

At APB Port of Ayr, another attribute was added to the list of desirable qualities for hauliers: efficiency.

Handling 340,000 tonnes of cargo annually (a broad mix of dry goods and materials beyond forest products), Ayr has a reputation for being one of the UK’s quickest ports for cargo discharge, saving customers a lot of money, but its position on a river provides unique challenges.

Forestry Journal: A tour of EGGER Barony showed the entire process of how a tree becomes chipboard. A tour of EGGER Barony showed the entire process of how a tree becomes chipboard.

Commercial and TimberLINK manager Iain Hay explained: “We don’t want ships sitting in the quay for any length of time. We’ve got to keep things moving.”

To that end, the Port of Ayr recently marked the completion of a seven-year £2.2m investment strategy to upgrade all front-line machinery, including the acquisition of new Liebherr material-handling cranes.

Reflecting on the aims of the Timber Haulage Academy, Iain said: “The more we can do to encourage people into this industry, the better, I think. Forestry is a sector that’s always going to be here. I remember going up to Argyll when I was young and seeing the same trees growing which are now being cut down and brought down here. As an industry, it’s sustainable, renewable and, in our case, everything we do here has a benefit for the local area.”

Thursday saw a forest works manager from Tillhill Forestry take the group into the woods to get a feel for how lorries manoeuvre and load up on a harvesting site, before the week was rounded off on Friday with each participant finally getting the chance to climb up into the high seat and operate a timber crane.

READ MORE: Confor's Introduction to Forestry Machinery: Plugging the industry's skills gap

Hopes are high that funding will be approved through Skills Development Scotland for another round of haulage events in Scotland and that the programme could be successfully duplicated in England and Wales.

Forestry Journal: Neil Stoddart and Iain Hay of ABP Port of Ayr.Neil Stoddart and Iain Hay of ABP Port of Ayr.

Neil said: “It may be a Timber Haulage Academy, but this initiative is opening eyes to all the different roles in the industry. So at the end of the day, if one of our participants chose not to become a haulier, but still ended up in forestry, that’s still a win for me.”

Whether the first graduates of the Timber Haulage Academy do go on to careers in forestry is ultimately up to them, but it’s fair to say they couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.