KWES Kent Woodland Employment Scheme is a charity that started work in 2013, initially focusing on providing training for woodland workers in Kent and the south east.
There was, and still is, a critical shortage of such workers with the skills and experience they need if they are to enjoy a worthwhile career.
KWES financed its first few employees from charitable grants – and in 2014 negotiated a government grant which enabled it to build its trainee numbers by the end of 2016 to twenty.
Their training programme was designed for KWES by the Royal Forestry Society, and comprised three elements: the Horticultural Correspondence College provided a theoretical component; that, together with a range of certificates for practical skills (NPTC chainsaw “tickets” for instance) enabled ABC, the Awarding Bodies Consortium, to award a Level 2 Certificate in Forestry; but the most important of the three elements of the training was the two years of concentrated experience the trainees received in Kent’s ancient woodlands.
Every wood is different, and every day in any wood is different – the only common factor is that forestry, if not carried out correctly, can be extremely dangerous. That is why all training and experience must be supervised by a qualified forester, and in teams of no more than four trainees. The work that trainees are able to do does produce some level of income, but will never be sufficient to meet their employer’s full costs.
Employers across all industries have been strongly encouraged by government to produce, from 2017, “trailblazer” apprenticeship schemes, and the forestry industry now has a Level 2 qualification which is more or less identical to the RFS qualification – (both RFS and KWES were on the industry’s committee which produced it). But in common with “trailblazers” for other industries, the government subsidises the employer’s training costs on a “one day per week” (or equivalent block release) basis. It is assumed that each apprentice can earn for his employer in the remaining four days sufficient to meet the latter’s full cost of employing him. This is a wrong assumption so far as the forestry industry is concerned.
KWES’s original government grant, which had financed almost all its costs, expired at end-2016. Faced with the drastic reduction in support represented by the “trailblazers” arrangement, KWES had no alternative but to halt its employment of its own trainees.
KWES remains committed to its principal objective of training forestry apprentices. And KWES is fully qualified to provide such training, and draw down the “trailblazer” subsidy for doing so. But it will be mainly those apprenticed to other forestry employers to whom KWES will be able to offer this apprenticeship training.
There are two caveats:
KWES can at any time train apprentices of employers who pay the apprenticeship levy, that is employers with a payroll of over £3m. Because the government wants to maintain “stability” in the marketplace of providers of training, KWES would only be able to offer the same training to apprentices of non-levy-paying employers, and to do so only from January 2018, if it were training forty such apprentices – a number which KWES does not believe it could achieve.
If and to the extent that KWES can raise charitable funds to make this possible, it will again employ, and train, its own apprentices, but the government’s own publicity for the support it is providing for apprenticeships make this raising of charitable finance more problematical.
KWES also continues to believe, strongly, that woodland workers are best trained and given experience on a five-days-a-week basis. The RFS has stated that those coming through KWES’s programme were as a result “work-ready”. Over the years since 2013, KWES has seen a decline in applications from ex-service personnel, but a dramatic increase in the numbers of young people, many with college or university qualifications, who are nevertheless unable to find work in the forestry industry because they lack any practical experience and qualifications.
KWES is fully committed to providing training and experience which will enable such people to move into employment. The apprenticeship subsidy is not relevant for such “short course” training, but there are many cases in which assistance towards the costs can be obtained through the adult education schemes.
Training, and providing experience, for those who want to work in the woodlands of Kent and the south east is, and will always remain, central to KWES’s objectives. And because training should always, in every industry and career, continue throughout life, KWES is seeking funds to encourage those who have achieved their Level 2 Forestry qualification to go further – a scholarship in Silviculture which recognises that timber production, particularly in an ancient woodland context, depends on maintaining its functioning ecosystem.
But there are further ways in which KWES aims to boost those woodlands, and the industry whose heart they have been for so many centuries:
The decline in numbers of qualified woodland workers over the hundred years since the end of the first world war has seen increasing numbers of woods left unmanaged, some falling into dereliction. KWES is working with woodland owners to bring them back into sustainable production.
Each of those declines have been mirrored by that in the woodlands’ infrastructure, such as saw-mills and timber transporters. Again KWES’s activities are helping to reverse this.
Woodlands, particularly the “ancient” woodlands which have existed since at least 1600 – sometimes since the last ice-age, and were until recently continuously managed, are beautiful at all times of the year. They should wherever possible be open to, and appreciated and enjoyed by, the public. Increasing accessibility, and increasing public awareness and knowledge of this resource, is another of KWES’s objectives.
And progress on each of those fronts also assists KWES’s most fundamental, underlying objective, the conservation of those ancient woodlands, whose importance cannot be over-stated as a vital habitat for a vast range of birds, animals, insects and wildflowers, many of them endangered species, and hundreds of different fungi. Once lost, an ancient woodland cannot be replaced – and the threats are not only development, but lack of statutory protection in the face of owners who see greater profits from clearing for agriculture than maintaining their woodlands in a derelict condition. It is still possible to regenerate them, but the time-frame is ever-shortening.