Fort sawmill highlights timber industry skills shortage during MSP’s visit

Third year saw doctor apprentice Jamie Duncan chats to MSP Kate Forbes during the visit. NO F17 Kate Forbes MSP and Jamie Duncan
Third year saw doctor apprentice Jamie Duncan chats to MSP Kate Forbes during the visit. NO F17 Kate Forbes MSP and Jamie Duncan

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Lochaber constituency MSP Kate Forbes recently found out first hand about the skills shortage in the UK forestry and timber industry during a visit to BSW Timber’s sawmill in Fort William.

These shortages cannot be filled until there is more awareness of the top quality apprenticeship opportunities available in the sector, according to the largest forestry and timber group in the UK, BSW Group, which welcomed Ms Forbes, also the  Holyrood Finance Secretary to the sawmill during last month’s 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.

Mr Lockey told us: ‘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.

‘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 MSPs 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 sawmill 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 10 years still
working for the business.

For Mr Lockey, building awareness of apprenticeship schemes beyond national frameworks is vital to getting people into the industry.

‘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,’ he explained.

‘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.’

Former apprentice Shaun MacLeod played a starring role in Ms Forbes’ visit to the Fort William site.

Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr MacLeod  began his Modern Apprenticeship in Electrical Control Systems with BSW Timber straight from school and completed his apprenticeship in November.

‘Technically I really progressed my learning in electrical and mechanical areas and my
understanding of industrial manufacturing through my apprenticeship,’ he said.

‘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 delighted to promote the site to Ms Forbes and believes it can be a catalyst to getting more young people interested in the industry.

Local constituency MSP Kate Forbes with mill manager, Oliver Stephen, during her recent tour of the company's Fort William site. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image. NO F17 Oliver Stephen and Kate Forbes Nevis background
Local constituency MSP Kate Forbes with mill manager, Oliver Stephen, during her recent tour of the company’s Fort William site. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, The Write Image.
NO F17 Oliver Stephen and Kate Forbes Nevis background

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.’