KWES Kent Woodland Employment Scheme is a charity established in 2012 to offer employment (in the form of apprenticeships) to people seeking forestry employment, but having difficulty finding it. Those difficulties stemmed most often from lack of skills and experience, but were worse for those entering the jobs market from an institutionalised life, for instance in the armed forces or prison.
KWES’s interest was mainly in mixed broadleaf woodlands – “boots on the ground” forestry in woods managed on a commercial basis. KWES has never been involved in arboriculture, (tree surgery or working at height), nor with hobby or recreational forestry.
The word “apprenticeship” signifies a three-way contract, involving the apprentice, an employer and a training organisation. The government’s “trailblazer” apprenticeship scheme set up in 2017 runs (and provides a small level of funds) under rules administered by the Department for Education. It envisages two-year apprenticeships, with the apprentice typically working four days a week in the employer’s business, and being released for one day each week to be taught more theoretical knowledge in the trainer’s accommodation. Looking at this from the employer’s point of view, it gets the services, (part time and part subsidised), of a worker who starts with no skills or experience, but can be expected to gain these over the two year period. “Employing” him/her is thus a pure burden at first for the employer, but its apprentice should be more or less paying his/her way at the end of a couple of years, especially if s/he is still quite young. However, the real value to the employer is that its former apprentice, to be fully “employable” after qualification, needs in most industries another, say, two years of experience – and s/he can realistically only gain this in that same employer’s business, (which explains how the government can say that apprenticeships “lead to a continuing job”). It is the wage-rate that the employer pays his ex-apprentice during this period which gives the employer real value from the whole operation.
That simply does not “fit” the forestry industry. A forester’s knowledge, skills and basic experience are inseparable, and can only be acquired on a five-day-a-week basis under the close supervision of an employer who is also a trainer. Any one individual employer/trainer is allowed under Lantra rules to supervise no more than four trainees – forestry is notoriously a dangerous industry, and inculcating safe practices requires close supervision. All this completely destroys the economics of the situation, both for potential employers and trainers. When KWES was operating its apprenticeship scheme, we found that the “subsidy” we needed per employee (to pay realistic salaries to apprentices and supervisors) was six times the amount the government’s trailblazer scheme is now prepared to pay. Although KWES hoped when we started that we could raise charitable funds to do this, we moved on to operating only on the basis of obtaining a government grant which recognised forestry’s special circumstances. That grant-scheme has been abolished as part of Brexit. The position now is that even charitable funds are more or less impossible, because donors cannot understand how the “trailblazer” scheme could have been so inappropriately designed.
Further facts are relevant. No one can start forestry employment under the age of eighteen, because insurance is not available for the employing organisation. The knowledge and skills necessary for a basic forestry “qualification” can be acquired in a single year, although real experience takes longer. Foresters are in such short supply that most trainees would move to become self-employed as soon as they did qualify. These points make it obvious why, (after KWES had had to make all its twenty apprentices redundant on non-renewal of our grant), that the government scheme recorded only three forestry apprenticeships being registered in the whole country in its first three years of operation.
There are to KWES’s knowledge only two routes available to get into the forestry industry. The first, heavily over-subscribed, is a plan run by the Royal Forestry Society called “Roots”, which helps some of the big landed estates to train people they want to employ as foresters. You would need to start by finding such an employing organisation. The other is to accept that no one is likely to take you on as an employee, but to persuade some existing forestry individual or organisation to take you on as a “sub-contractor” – and give you experience and training. You would at the start have little or no self-employed earnings from your sub-contract, but you would have expenses. You would need to pay for basic training courses (for instance forestry first aid, and chainsaw maintenance and cross-cutting). You would have to buy your personal protective and other kit, and pay for your own insurance – a requirement of the forestry organisation you were working for, and of any land-owner on whose property you were working. Additionally you would have to be able to get to multiple work-sites in your own transport.
KWES was trying to help with all these costs for a limited number of people after the ending of our own apprenticeship scheme, but Covid and the economic situation have made it all so difficult that we can no longer continue to do this. Should funds reappear by a miracle, KWES could take on new generations of apprentices. But such an event would also require a re-generation of KWES’s present management.
Absent miracles, this is all a tragedy not only for individuals who want to get into the industry and for those whose interests are in its infrastructure, for instance transporting, sawing or milling timber, but a tragedy also for the woodlands. Without people to do the work, (and with all respect to volunteers, they can never be sufficient), woodlands, particularly ancient woodlands, cannot but deteriorate and decline.
Ancient woodlands are those which have existed since at least 1600 – they were not originally planted but many are remnants of the forests which covered the land after the last ice-age ended 10,000 years ago. Their soils have never been cultivated or fertilised, and the plants and fungi which survive under the trees are unique. Without management – the periodic coppicing which lets light and air down to the woodland floor – the tree canopy eventually closes, and almost all flora, fungi, bird- and insect-life below it dies; and so in due course does the woodland itself. We have only a few years to avoid this happening on a disastrous scale. An ancient woodland, once lost, can never be replaced.
Meanwhile, what can be said about the state of our “employment starved” forestry industry is that, (despite some loss each year of acreage to development or otherwise), the tonnage of standing, unharvested timber continues to increase year by year, much of it “overstood”, past the time at which it should have been harvested, deteriorating rather than improving. And the UK is the second largest importer of timber and timber-products in the world, second only to China.