THERE were a lot of questions being asked on the Forest Machine Operators Blog this month, but the one that kicked off the most debate came from a Yorkshire-based contractor, who wanted to know: “Is it just me or is finding staff a nightmare?”

Anyone working in forestry will be aware of the challenge of finding staff, but in the world of harvesting in particular, why is it so difficult?

Most members running their own businesses seemed to agree finding experienced staff – or anyone with any mechanical aptitude at all – was a real hassle. If they’re any good, they’re probably already working and earning more than you can afford to offer. Others will need training up and no-one wants to invest two years or more moulding a new recruit into a first-class operator only for them to take a job with a competitor, or worse, set themselves up in business against you.

Forestry Journal: Dougie Wheeler.Dougie Wheeler.

Is the best answer to pay over the odds and do less well out of the work yourself? Paying for your own piece of mind, rather than what you think they’re worth? Offering your employees twice the average rate means you’ll never be able to afford a big team, but at least you’ll have quality you can rely on. Sometimes less is best.

Which is all very good for those who can afford it, but what about the rest? As operators age out of the game and the pool of experienced hands gets smaller and smaller, what can be done to meet the shortfall? Ultimately, someone will have to give the next generation a chance, but for now, the prospects aren’t great.

One member wrote: “I tried years ago to get into the job, but no-one would give a young lad a shot. Went in muck shifting, but work dried up and ended up in haulage. More folk should give the young, hungry lads a shot. Yes, it’s a huge risk, but without the youth learning the right way there will never be enough good experienced operators in the future.”

Forestry Journal: Gav Robertson.Gav Robertson.

Other tales were similar. One comment read: “I finished forestry college last year, not the management course – the hands-on chainsaws and planting, etc. Wanted to drive a forwarder, but the problem is nobody wants to take the time to train people up, so now I’m welding instead.”

Another said: “I’m the same as you. Got my chainsaw tickets and digger tickets and was going to put myself through the forwarder/harvester course and still no-one will take me on as I have no experience.”

READ MORE: Buyer's Guide: Low-impact forestry

Yet another, speaking as someone who’s been on the saw for a few years, said: “Breaking into the industry as an operator seems next to impossible. Every position I see advertised wants experience, then they complain when no-one applies.”

Forestry Journal: Robbie Robertson.Robbie Robertson.

Are employers simply unwilling to give rookies a chance? One member didn’t think so, advising jobseekers: “Three things you need: willing, a sensible wage request and an alarm clock. Then I’d say 90 per cent of employers will train you. If not, then it’s more a reflection on them than you.”

Fair to say this optimistic outlook was not reflected in the majority of comments, with some suggesting they’d been burned a few too many times giving chances in the past.

One member said: “It’s very hard to invest time, effort, money (including loss of production and breakages, etc) when the people ultimately don’t make it. This can take 12–18 months to realise. We have tried apprentices from a local college and it’s been a total waste of time. Genuinely they have all been snowflakes.”

Forestry Journal: Oliver Kelly.Oliver Kelly.

Comments like that prompted one member to jump to the defence of younger operators. He said: “I’m 30 and I may not be the highest producer or do the biggest hours like some ‘heroes’ do, but I am reliable. I turn up every day and I’ll get to work no matter what. I get the job done even when a previous old boy harvester driver has gone into blocks and mucked them up and left bits because they couldn’t be arsed, and I don’t go ringing JD when I ever-so-slightly dent or bend something and stick thousands on the account for something that didn’t have to be replaced. Some of the old boys in the industry might as well give their keys back and go work at Tesco because you’re about as useful as a headache. I know there are some dickhead younger lads out there who mess bosses about and smash machines, but from what I see it’s mostly the older lads. Not all, obviously, but a lot of them just don’t care. They smash machines, lie about hours, can’t deal with simple problems and yet they are the ones who say, ‘the younger lot don’t know what they are doing’. That isn’t going to help the new lads trying to get into the industry get a job because it puts everyone off.”

Forestry Journal: Dustin Beauchamp.Dustin Beauchamp.

Taking a balanced view was another operator in his 30s, who said: “I know that 99 per cent in my age group would not have stuck it out and quit within the first week. Hooking up your caravan for the first time to go 180 miles from home, family and friends, living in the woods and also leaving a sociable working environment with a group of blokes having a laugh on a building site or arb team to sit on your own with your own thoughts for 12 hours a day and then spend the evenings on your own is not for everyone!”

READ MORE: Malwa Forest: Q&A with owner Magnus Wallin

The original poster, however, who confirmed, due to being unable to find good experienced guys, he was now thinking of training someone up, said: “People refusing to hire rookies and then complaining about the inevitable labour shortage are a bit hypocritical. It’s not just forestry. Loads of industries are the same that lack a proper apprenticeship programme and no clear path to competency.”

Forestry Journal: Brent Hayman.Brent Hayman.

He moved debate on to consider why on-the-job training was apparently so unworkable for most contractors, posing a series of questions:

  • What is the answer to training staff?
  • What is the cost for a newbie to go to college?
  • How do you explain to someone who is keen (in theory) that they need to work for free for at least the first week or two because technically they’re costing you money?
  • Would the government help fund an apprentice?

The main issue was quickly identified as affordability.

“If the rates stay as they are then an employer can’t afford the cost of training,” said one member. “I went to uni to do forestry but it didn’t help me find work. Took me 20 years of tree surgery and moving halfway up the country to end up hand cutting for literally peanuts. Good experience, but I couldn’t pay the rent so I had to stop. Eventually, I ended up on a machine but by this time kids were in the way. I had to take a job closer to home with higher pay. That’s forestry all over – low pay and most are either born into a family doing it or had money to start a business without worrying about failure. I’m afraid it shows the poor state of the industry when contractors fight to work for lower wages!”

Forestry Journal: Matthew Rawsthorne.Matthew Rawsthorne.

Echoing his point, another member said: “In any industry the cost (in terms of lower production, breakdowns, tickets, etc) is an overhead that has to be accounted for in the rates. If an operator does not do this they can externalise that cost, i.e. attract quality operators from other companies and reduce their rates accordingly to win work. If everyone tries to externalise this cost, you end up in the situation we are in now. The rates in the industry are now too low to cover the overhead of staff training and development. Market forces dictate that the situation will only change when we literally run out of operators and machines start to sit idle, thus reducing competition and driving rates up or operators force rates up, allowing them to internalise training costs again.”

READ MORE: On the right track: how high-performance steel makes forestry operators climate-smart

Blog founder Mark Curtis weighed in on the debate to say: “The days of people working for free to learn a trade are gone, probably as they should be, because there’s no such thing as free. It costs folk money just to go to work. It was the way us older folk learned, but we have to accept that was a totally different era and we need to move on. Even the talk of it will put folk off getting into forestry because let’s face it, if a guy can’t afford to pay his mortgage and put food on the table and pay his bills, what’s the point of getting out of bed? My idea, as I stated here a few years back, was for the contractor to take on an apprentice and register that apprentice to a scheme that is set up by a governmental group and for that person to be assessed every couple of months and signed off after a six-month period or more and then, at the end of the year, the contractor would get a tax break on that trainee’s wages for the year, thus giving everyone an incentive. The operator gets trained to the specific contractor’s needs or, if he’s no good, can be let go without the bureaucracy of a government body. Simple really… I think. The bottom line is the rate for the job is too low, so contractors can’t afford the time to wait for someone to learn.”

Forestry Journal: Jamie Cass.Jamie Cass.

A serious problem, but what could the solution be? The idea of operators forcing rates up was viewed by most as an appealing fantasy, with too many across the industry still willing to undercut each other to secure a job.

The original poster commented: “Another part of the issue is that some contractors openly lie about cashflow to avoid paying the blokes they’ve got or to get them to take a pay cut to keep the job, falsely claiming Tilhill etc haven’t paid up. What I can’t understand is how colleges haven’t seen the gap in training and started to offer FMOC training like they do with agri machinery. Down south most NPORS and CPCS trainers aren’t interested in adapting courses to give you experience doing anything other than pulling foundations or grading shingle, so you’re paying for a ticket that, while it technically qualifies you, it doesn’t give you the training for the job you want. Forestry’s been left behind in so much.”

With well over 200 comments received and read, he summed up the conclusions he’d reached from the information provided:

  • There is government help to fund an apprentice.
  • The younger generation are willing to work but opportunities are few.
  • High machine cost, running costs, insurance costs and the costs of training while WE AS AN INDUSTRY ARE STILL STUPIDLY CONTRACTING FOR PEANUTS AND UNDERCUTTING EACH OTHER.

He said: “I know we already know this, but we’re our own worst enemies. I know greed and mistrust is human nature, but our industry is going down the shitter and we’ve nobody else to blame.”

A forest machine operator problem requires a forest machine operator solution. To weigh in with your own thoughts, seek out the Forest Machine Operators Blog on Facebook.

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