Despite contributing £2 billion to the UK economy each year, forestry is a little-understood industry. Very few people stop to consider where the trees come from that are used for building materials and paper.
The industry employs around 40,000 people, a significant proportion of whom are out in all weathers managing our forests to make sure they can keep producing timber, and re-planting forests and creating new ones. However, we are suffering from a real shortage of students choosing forestry as a career.
So how do you recruit and retain talent when the pool of people with the knowledge and skills you need is very small and not keeping pace with the growth of an industry?
For Tilhill Forestry the approach is twofold. There are only about half a dozen universities that teach degrees in forestry and we realised a few years ago that links with lecturers would be key to encouraging the brightest of this small pool to join Tilhill. That’s one of the reasons we’ve developed a forestry student award scheme to recognise outstanding coursework. It’s excellent for brand awareness and offers an opportunity for our senior managers to visit these key universities to present the awards.
After enticing these budding foresters to join our company, we need them to stay with us, so professional development is a vital part of our HR strategy.
As you can imagine, talented foresters are sought after by our competitors so we have to make sure we invest in our staff throughout their journey with us. That’s one of the reasons we developed our ‘Management Development Programme (MDP)’, which has been created specifically to stretch and harness the talent and potential within our organisation and help us all to focus on our strategic aspirations for the future. Our MDP has four levels, and is designed to provide support at all levels of someone’s career.
Our graduates start their careers with us as assistant forest managers. From day one they are given responsibility, which means they can help us straight away by bringing fresh eyes and a different perspective to our business. We also enrol them on the ‘Unlocking Potential’ element of our Management Development Programme. This spans an 18-month period and includes themed learning activities, personal reflection leading to increased self-awareness, business skills development, team interaction and senior involvement.
The other levels of our MDP are ‘Driving Performance’, ‘Future Leaders’ and ‘Executive Development’, each designed to create an environment to help develop our managers’ leadership skills as they take on more responsibility.
My board of directors have all had input into the design of the programme and its content has been influenced by benchmarking with other leading global companies. I, along with the rest of the board, participate in these events to share our own experiences and answer any questions.
This training is important for many reasons. But for me one of the critical things is developing an ‘it’s my own business’ collaborative culture around business development activity and shared responsibility.
Our employees are the future not only of Tilhill Forestry, but also of the precious resource that is our forests and woodland. For this reason, we take growing our people as seriously as growing trees.
George McRobbie is managing director of Tilhill Forestry