“So…what exactly do you do?” is usually the first response when I tell people that I’m doing a degree in forestry. I don’t blame them as even growing up with a father as a forester I always struggled to clearly explain what Dad’s job was, which can’t have been a great encouragement for others to investigate this career path for themselves.
After meeting Lacey at the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) national conference in April, I’ve finally found time four months later to sit down and write about my experience in the forestry sector so far. I’ve just completed my first year as a forestry undergraduate degree student at Bangor University and I can honestly say I’m looking forward to year two! This time a year ago I was in a very different position. I’d just finished two intense years studying the International Baccalaureate at college with a long daily bus commute and all I knew is that I wanted a degree where I could spend time where I’m happiest: outside. If you’d have told 17 year old Lamorna that in a couple of years she’d be studying forestry at Bangor, she would have laughed at you.
But then some of Dad’s work projects began to really inspire me, so forestry became an interest. I then visited Bangor for a forestry open day and loved it, making forestry an option. As I visited my other degree options one by one and knew they weren’t for me, forestry became a decision. I still wasn’t really sure what to expect from the degree in this ‘unknown’ industry. Most course-mates were going on to study economics or geography or a more ‘classic’ career path and weren’t even aware that a forestry degree was a thing. I’d surprised a lot of people (including myself!) with this decision and even had a plan B to switch courses if it wasn’t for me.
A year on, I have no regrets! The course, the field trips and the lecturers have all been amazing and I’ve been learning alongside a great group of students of different ages who contribute different levels of experience. From modules on silviculture to environmental economics, I’ve come to appreciate how there is such a range of career options within the sector: practical ‘hands on’ forestry to urban forestry to environmental management…thankfully it’s a little while before I must decide the exact route that I want to take!
The courses have helped me realise how forestry is often perceived as very specific and solely practical by those on the outside. Day one of the degree programme and my lecturer walked in with a chainsaw, dumped it on the front desk and told us “You will not be using one of these throughout your whole degree!” Obviously, the chainsaw has a hugely important place within the industry but this was a clear reminder that forestry includes a wide range of career options. Yet at conferences and reading articles by the ICF and Royal Forestry Society (RFS) I repeatedly see this recurring theme of a skills gap in the forestry sector, a hugely important industry without the waiting workforce needed to fuel its growth. In the UK there’s a decline in places offering forestry courses, yet a rising recognition of the importance of forestry with current environmental, social and economic issues.
So, what is the cause of the lack of young people within this industry? Young people don’t realise that a forestry career exists because they don’t know what forestry is; in rural areas as well as urban areas we are raised with little teaching about trees, woodlands and forests, particularly that forests needs managing (and hence forests need foresters).
We know the problem, the industry is affected by the problem, but we need solutions. It’s been encouraging recently seeing growing enthusiasm and energy to get more young people into forests and hopefully some into forestry as a career. I’ve heard about many new initiatives such as the RFS’ Future Foresters program that is targeting this issue. The industry needs a coordinated response at successfully marketing itself to children and young people. Proper ‘forest schools’ and field trips that educate the basics by teaching tree ID; forestry modules within biology and geography to highlight the possibility of this as a career choice. We need more apprenticeship schemes to train up young professionals.
Although I wasn’t there for the entire ICF conference, I read Lacey’s talk and what struck me was what she said about inspiring the next generation of foresters. Tell a person about forestry, ask them if they’ve ever considered a career in it, encourage them to look into it. Something simple for anyone to do and so easily overlooked yet vital if we’re ever going to close this gap. You inspire them and they won’t regret their decision; I don’t regret mine.