Pictured: Fort William's Mill Manager Oliver Stephen was thrilled to promote BSW Timber to Member of Scottish Parliament Kate Forbes recently.

The skills shortage in the UK forestry and timber industry cannot be filled until there is more awareness of the exciting apprenticeship opportunities available in the sector.

That’s according to the largest forestry and timber group in the UK, BSW Group, who welcomed Member of Scottish Parliament Kate Forbes to its BSW Timber sawmill in Fort William during Scottish Apprenticeship Week.

During her visit, Ms Forbes toured the site and met with apprentice engineers and saw doctors, to hear first-hand about their experiences and the growth of the industry. Group learning and development manager, Tony Lockey, believes the visit was crucial to raising awareness about the skills shortage that exists in the timber sector.

“In the wake of COP26, there has been an emphasis on the fact we need to promote working in timber and forestry, and how a career in our industry can support young people’s values about protecting the environment," he says.

“A lot of the time, the apprenticeships that the Government pushes are focused on public sector needs, such as a call for 30,000 new NHS workers. Having the opportunity to show one of our region’s MPs around is great, and we welcome more MSPs to come along and see what we are doing.

“The passion that our apprentices were able to get across enables Kate [Forbes] to go to Westminster and promote apprenticeships in timber and forestry businesses.”

The largest sawmiller in the country and a subsidiary of BSW Group, BSW Timber has a strong history of apprenticeships, with 22 of the 25 taken on in the last ten years still working for the business. For Lockey, building awareness of apprenticeship schemes beyond national frameworks is vital to getting people into the industry.

He added: “What people often forget is that we need to educate parents and colleges on various types of apprenticeships too. It’s not very often that parents will advise their children to look at an apprenticeship with us, but they might push them towards an office-style apprenticeship. Getting people down to the sawmill, can be an eye-opener, which really represents what career opportunities there are in our sector.

“Some of our leading lights have come from the apprenticeship route. We are always keen to put them forward for awards as they not only promote the fantastic work they are doing within the sector, but it raises the profile of apprenticeship schemes. When people see the technical side of what we do, it presents our world to a wider audience.”

Lockey added: “When we select young people for our programme, it is to provide them with a career in our business at the end of it. We want apprentices to capitalise on opportunities with the aim that they will stay within our teams into the future.”

Former apprentice Shaun MacLeod played a starring role in Ms Forbes’ visit to Fort William. MacLeod, who was nominated for a Scottish Apprenticeship Award, has not only helped BSW Timber to reduce its carbon footprint, but also to save money.

Innovations developed by a team of apprentices, and driven by MacLeod through Skills Development Scotland’s Fuel Change Challenge, included the idea of introducing a new electric-powered mobile side-loader fleet to the mill in Fort William.

The initiatives explored by the 21-year-old and his team offered new ways of working and could potentially deliver annual savings of £400,000 a year for the mill, with the added opportunity to cut carbon emissions by thousands of tonnes per year.

Shaun began his Modern Apprenticeship in Electrical Control Systems with BSW Timber straight from school and completed his apprenticeship in November last year.

“Technically I really progressed my learning in electrical and mechanical areas and my understanding of industrial manufacturing through my apprenticeship,” said MacLeod.

“My apprenticeship has also helped me massively with my personal skills, my confidence, and being able to communicate with others. I’m currently in a mentor role for the younger apprentices going through the Fuel Change Challenge, so this has helped with my leadership skills.”

The Fort William management team is well-versed in apprenticeships, with electrical supervisor Stuart Matheson working his way through the ranks after joining the firm as an electrical apprentice in 2015, while engineering manager Robert Wojcik was appointed in December to support employee development as an apprentice mentor.

Mill manager Oliver Stephen was thrilled to promote the site to Ms Forbes and believes it can be a catalyst to getting more young people interested in the industry. He said: “The visit was great, and it gave Kate [Forbes] the opportunity to hear first-hand from Shaun, Jamie Duncan (a third-year saw doctor apprentice) and Ryan Boyle (a fourth-year mechanical apprentice) on what they do day to day in the mill.

“It’s important to have these visits from people like the Cabinet Secretary as it gives us the opportunity to showcase what we are all about and discuss future growth plans.

“The benefits of taking part go much further than helping the business, as it also engages young people and enables them to influence their colleagues by coming forward with different ideas about ways of doing things, which has been a very positive experience.”