Forestry is the best job in the world and there’s plenty of work to be done. Despite this, attracting young people to the industry is more challenging than ever. So what needs to change?

DID anyone see the job advert where the salary for a working site supervisor was £2,500 less than office-based trainee positions? An experienced person at the coal face valued less than someone straight out of university? Is this one of the reasons we are facing a crisis in attracting young people to work in our industry?

I was also recently told the story of a graduate who refused a place as a trainee, starting on the tools to gain basic experience, because he considered it beneath him.

READ MORE: Forestry: Does anyone want to work in the UK's industry?

Nobody can dispute that at the ground level the work is mucky, wet, hot, cold, physical, dangerous, even monotonous on occasion. Living conditions can be basic on remote sites, or sites that are not commutable and require a nomadic lifestyle. But what other career requires decision-making as the first step? ‘What’s the safest way of doing this?’ is the first question every forester must ask. It demands knowledge of metrology, topography, geology, diseases, entomology, fire and pollution prevention and control, trauma emergency medical assistance and rigging. You need to be a naturalist, conservationist, mechanic, logistics expert – and an Olympic sprinter too. Above all, it is a highly skilled job in which you are learning all the time. The best job in the world, in my opinion.

Forestry Journal: Turn 130 degrees left from oak and 10 metres down the hill black poplar and alder on the start of the flood plain – forestry and conservation/ecology side by side.Turn 130 degrees left from oak and 10 metres down the hill black poplar and alder on the start of the flood plain – forestry and conservation/ecology side by side. (Image: FJ)

Recently, if you were to search for a job in woodlands or forestry within a 50-mile radius of where I live you would find two vacancies for experienced estate supervisors, a couple more for ‘carbon officers’ in local government, chefs in woodland hotels featured more than twice, but only one for a position which would welcome a new person to the industry (good on you, Nick). The Forestry Commission also had two jobs available, one of which was for a craftsperson but did not specify if a new starter would be welcome to apply. The big operators had no vacancies in the area. There were positions at seven tree surgeons, but with experience and tickets required.

We keep hearing of the need to attract new entrants to forestry, but where are they to find the opportunities? Clearly there are some issues that need to be addressed.


Forestry Journal: Oak on one of the woodlands I manage. Three or four trees to be harvested next year but 18/19 left for continuous canopy cover. 30-year-old oak plantation in the left distance.Oak on one of the woodlands I manage. Three or four trees to be harvested next year but 18/19 left for continuous canopy cover. 30-year-old oak plantation in the left distance. (Image: FJ)

To start at the very beginning: Why do teachers seem to denigrate manual, craft and artisan work, insisting all careers require university degrees? This was the message given first to my children, and now the grandchildren are being told the same. There is nothing wrong with being an artisan worker. We are not ‘shovel monkeys’ in dead-end jobs with no prospects. We are skilled workers and, depending on our individual circumstances, able to improve ourselves and our expectations. The forestry school at our local agricultural college now offers a wide range of courses, none of which existed when I was a boy. It might not be university, but for those who want to get into forestry it’s a real starting point.

To see what might attract young people to the sector I took a look at educational videos for forestry.

At the primary level they were mainly about leaves and twigs, playing in woodland and staying within safe zones, without explanation of why you should stay safe. Surely that would help, to start logical thinking at an early age (after all, common sense is logical thinking). These video lessons were quite good on habitat for wildlife and, although they did not demonstrate how to build a proper habitat stack, they at least showed how to keep a woodland tidy and clean. You can take me to task about safety, habitat stacks and a clean woodland, but it’s basic to me.

At the secondary level they did try to get children to explore woodland environments and different land types. The pupils did not show much enthusiasm, just ticking boxes on fact sheets. The teachers were not much better. There were exceptions when a teacher was talking about a subject dear to themselves – mainly conservation and ecology, which did excite some pupils to get more muddy, poking about and probing in ponds. Not one of the videos I looked at showed a mature oak grown true for timber, although there were some shots of softwood monoculture. These videos concentrated on the romance of the environment and ecological issues and definitely leaned towards this as a focus for possible careers. There was no mention of the effort and intellect required to grow and harvest timber.

Other videos promoting careers in the industry showed graduates talking in a monotone about their job. They did not describe why they wanted to work in forestry or what they had done to reach the position they were in. The grandchildren did not get excited when they watched.

At the other end of the spectrum, has anybody seen a video from France 24 on the ‘Green Gold’ of French forests? Now that’s a video you really need to see! Why can’t we produce educational videos like that?

We need videos like the French or Australian ones, full of enthusiasm and hosted by working foresters, that will capture young people’s attention.

The videos produced in Australia were much better. Not only was the enthusiasm there, but they also described ‘upskilling’, not just getting tickets for bigger machines but upskilling from ground work to gaining qualification in forestry management and ecology.

Forestry Journal: Scots pine, monoculture much frowned on by some. You can’t see the Douglas or hemlock further over. We are talking about harvest in 2025. Took this on the first sunny day this year. They do look good in this light.Scots pine, monoculture much frowned on by some. You can’t see the Douglas or hemlock further over. We are talking about harvest in 2025. Took this on the first sunny day this year. They do look good in this light. (Image: FJ)

The son of my cousin in Australia has just completed a TAFE – Technical and Further Educational course. Funded by the federal government, these are free and designed to educate people in areas where skills are needed for the future. Any repayment is deferred until the student gains a job in the chosen field at an appropriate salary. My cousin’s son’s course was in land management. His brother is planting in Queensland and part of his remit is to protect and extend the habitat for the duck-billed platypus as well as forestry for harvest. The echidna (spiny anteater) on this site has gone walkabout, but he is still having to satisfy their environmental needs. He plans to upskill in the field of conservation planning. There are also courses providing tuition in survival and tracking.

Not necessary in the UK, you might think, but lose your mobile or a colleague in somewhere like Galloway or Kielder and you could need these skills.

The article in October’s Forestry Journal on the Development Woodland Officer programme (‘Future Ambitions’, FJ 338) was in the vein of upskilling, but it seemed to feature more on career change. It would have been interesting to find out how many people on this course came from a working background in forestry. As well as this initiative we need something like TAFE here in the UK.

READ MORE: Development Woodland Officer: Future foresters speak about their move into the sector

No, I have not forgotten the Forestry Training Fund, which sold out quicker than a Who or Quo concert. Too little, too late and no mention of another tranche.

Young people must be able see they can develop their career, not just get tickets for driving harvesters and forwarders or for dismantling windblown trees. Further education in the fields of forestry management, husbandry, conservation and ecology – even finance – should be seen to be readily available to allow young people to progress higher up and to the top of the ladder.

Sole operators can’t often afford to lose a day’s pay and also fund a course. Small contracting companies can’t afford to either lose a worker for any length of time or finance an extended course, even if they can reclaim some of the cost. These courses really need to be free, albeit with a qualification of previously working in the field for two years. If the current and future governments are that committed to creating new woodlands for their carbon targets then they need to properly fund further career development in forestry, both at the practical level and in planning and management. I know I am repeating myself, but young people must be able to see there are opportunities to achieve and further their careers.


Forestry Journal: Oak planted 1960 for timber, thinned 2005, unfortunately not maintained after 2015: there is Rhododendron ponticum starting to appear. I will be having words with the management company.Oak planted 1960 for timber, thinned 2005, unfortunately not maintained after 2015: there is Rhododendron ponticum starting to appear. I will be having words with the management company. (Image: FJ)

At the ground level there are two major problems: financial reward and job availability. With margins as they are, fortunes are not to be made, nor are jobs readily available. In many cases gaining a position in an existing estate team, public or private, means waiting until staff retire or move on. This type of market is virtually static. Only when budgets permit, either as a result of a successful grant application or privately funded work, are new positions created. Contractors seem only take on staff who have the necessary experience and tickets. Few want to take on an apprentice, even if they get support to do so.

One of my concerns is the type of young people getting on the college forestry courses.

READ MORE: Forestry: Potential operators given taste of John Deere forwarder

On the estate woodlands I once managed we had students from these courses come on site when we had a planting and similar tasks. Of the students on a course intake, 25 per cent were there because the college offered places to those needing to gain missing but necessary school-leaving academic grades. They were not interested in working in forestry at all and it did not change over the years. More than half were there because their careers advisor/teacher thought they might like working outside and forestry is outside. Of those left, some were there to go to university after completing a degree entry course. Only two or three were there because they really wanted to work in the industry and, mysteriously, half of them had parents in the business.

It’s been suggested that we need to fill 3,000 management jobs and 10,000 other roles in forestry in England and Wales by 2030. It’s the 10,000 that worries me. Forestry is not part of the national curriculum, nor should it be. We do need people who can read, write and do sums. But when careers are being discussed at secondary level then forestry should be featured – and not as an afterthought offered to kids who ‘want to work outside’.

Those 10,000 other jobs need new woodlands to be planted to create that work and that requires governments to get their act together. Musical chairs in the environment ministry and jobs for political supporters – with no knowledge of real work or the environment – will never produce consistent strategy, no matter what political party is in government.


Forestry Journal: Oak planted for timber in 2016 needs beating up, planned this winter 2023/4.Oak planted for timber in 2016 needs beating up, planned this winter 2023/4. (Image: FJ)

We need to educate the educators. Forestry is not just about growing trees for harvest.

It encompasses amenity, conservation, environmental and ecological practices. We (foresters) create woodlands and our work will regenerate the landscape. I believe we must convince the upcoming generations that this job is not just about monoculture and harvest.  It also includes practising conservation, ecological protection and environmental management. I don’t understand why there should be this supposed schism between forestry and conservation. I don’t differentiate and those I know in the industry don’t differentiate. Yes, we have to grow for harvest, but that does not stop us planting mixed species and managing them to develop into a more original, natural environment. Which areas to plant for harvest and which are suited to plant for amenity and ecology are the decisions of a forester, certainly in planting a new woodland. Both need protection and maintenance but each in different ways. That’s part of the attraction and benefit of this job.

Talking to a student the other day, I was struck by the seeming rift between his vision and those of his fellow students. The real difference is he has knowledge of large forests and the woodland cycle. He understands the energy companies or oil-producing countries will finance large tracts of forest and only vast scales will reduce climate change, not just hold it in check. The attitude of other course members is that he is selling out to the highest bidder. To my mind, whether you are planting the odd Plymouth pear or Llangollen whitebeam for conservation, or a billion-tree forest for a Middle Eastern country, you are working in forestry. We all have the same objective, which is to grow trees to the best of our ability. There is space for both.

We also need to educate the general public, whose perception is that we trudge out with chainsaws in the morning, shout ‘Timber!’ and trudge back in the evening having felled countless massive ancient trees, or drive out in huge harvesters and clear vast tracts without compunction. Most of the forestry programmes shown on freeview and satellite TV channels broadcast this type of operation, spotlighting redneck bravado for entertainment. Even the Beeb and commercial channels show only vast tracts of monoculture in various stages as stock pictures. What right-minded parent would recommend a career to their children if that was all it offered? We need better publicity than that!

There is one other group that needs education. The construction industry. Let me take the white van brigade and their tutors to task. Why aren’t they taught about the environment and the dangers of just chucking or burying their rubbish, ignoring the risks of contamination and the sharps that injure people and damage expensive tools? Ever tried to plant trees on a new-build site? If so, you’ll know burgeoning foresters aren’t the only ones with a lot to learn.