Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, Becky Wilkinson, learning and outreach manager at the Royal Forestry Society, addresses the skills shortage facing the industry and the lack of educational routes in.

THE Forestry Skills Forum Forestry Workforce Research Report of August 2021 identifies that the forestry workforce will need to grow by 86 per cent in England and 63 per cent in Wales over the next 10 years to meet the projected growth of our sector. Growth is projected due to a variety of factors including government’s desire to grow more trees to combat climate change through carbon sequestration, improve biodiversity, support flood alleviation and supply more UK-grown timber to the market. If our sector is to achieve this considerable growth, where are the next generation of foresters going to come from?

This article had been planned to be an introduction to the Government’s T Level reforms, the new vocational qualifications for young people aged 16–19 in England. Replacing over 1,000 existing vocational qualifications, T levels offer young people a choice of just over 20 vocational pathways. The first T levels in subjects such as health and digital were launched in September 2020 and the agriculture, land management and production (ALMP) T level, which includes forestry, will be accepting its first students in September 2023. 

The ALMP course will be substantially different to existing Level 3 forestry or arboriculture courses, with all students undertaking a common core, a module in tree and woodland management and maintenance with either a forestry or an arb focus, and a 45-day industry placement. Common core will see forestry and arb students learning alongside all other ALMP learners and completing work on topics including sustainability, business ethics, supply chains and project management. The industry placement is billed as an opportunity for young people to learn real life skills – a great opportunity, but not always straightforward for a 17-year-old who cannot yet drive or use any type of forestry tools to undertake extended work experience in what are often isolated rural locations. 

The very real problem for our sector is that at the time of writing, 16 colleges across England have confirmed that they will be offering the ALMP T level but only one (Sparsholt) has confirmed it will be offering the forestry pathway and only three (Sparsholt, Reaseheath and East Durham) have confirmed they will be offering arb.

While we anticipate a few more colleges may confirm they are offering the course between now and September, it is looking highly likely that there will be fewer colleges offering forestry and arb T level qualifications than had previously offered vocational qualifications at Level 2 and 3. At a time when we need more skilled professionals at every level, this is a very backwards step.

It is also as yet unclear as to which practical skills learners will gain while undertaking their course. As a course primarily marketed for 16–18 year olds, learners may not gain the practical competencies which employers might look for when taking on new members of staff.

So what’s the solution? Apprenticeships at Levels 2 and 3 will continue to be available, presenting a viable alternative pathway for young people wanting to enter the profession and for employers wanting to take on new staff with threshold competence in a range of practical skills. The RFS, along with other members of the Forestry Skills Forum, are also continuing to work closely with City and Guilds, IFATE and the land-based colleges to find a solution which provides the potential for an increase in the number of skilled professionals entering the forestry and arboriculture sectors. 

RFS Forestry Roots offers a unique opportunity for young people keen to start a career in forestry or arboriculture to gain their first full-time, paid employment through a 12-month traineeship with an RFS member. Paid for by the ALA Green Charitable Trust, Forestry Roots offers seven varied positions each year, this year ranging from forestry rangers at Hill Holt Wood, Lincolnshire, to an arborist on the Chatsworth Estate and a communications assistant with Action Oak. As well as paying a salary, the Forestry Roots trainees receive up to £2,000 of training during their year, enabling them to gain the skills they need to secure permanent employment. Forestry Roots is a hand-up, not a hand-out, enabling employers to take on young people without the experience or qualifications that might be needed for the role but funding them to get those skills while they are working.

READ MORE: Jemima Letts: Assistant forester on being a woman in forestry

We’re at a crossroads, with the climate crisis having the potential to have the biggest impact on our sector since World War I. Timber prices are at a high, the public wants access to woodlands and green spaces and every political party agrees on the need to substantially increase England’s woodland cover. There is a once-in-a-generation demand for what we can do, with forestry having a significant role to play in us reaching net carbon zero. No one solution is going to give us the workforce expansion that we need, but every change we make needs to improve access into forestry, not make it harder.

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or Forestry Journal.