Cashflow issues, training concerns and silver linings were just a couple of the topics discussed at industry body Confor’s webinar in May focusing on the issues contractors are up against during the COVID-19 pandemic.

THE impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt the world over. As the UK – primarily England – takes its first tentative steps towards easing the lockdown, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has warned of a “significant recession”, with the economy contracting at the fastest pace since the 2008 financial crisis.

There is certainly no shortage of doom and gloom. But is there any silver lining to this situation, no matter how faint? That was one of the questions raised during forest and timber trade body Confor’s recent webinar focusing on the challenges faced by contractors during the pandemic.

Hosted by David Lee, the webinar drew some 40 viewers and featured speakers Caroline Ayre, Confor’s national manager for England; Mark Curtis, a contractor based in the Republic of Ireland, familiar to many as the founder of the Forest Machine Operators Blog; Andrew Smith, a contractor and lecturer at the Scottish School of Forestry; and Stuart Goodall, Confor CEO. Toby Allen of Herefordshire-based contractor Say it with Wood was also presenting, but, unfortunately, his presentation was hampered by technical issues. Kate Williams of accountants King Morter Proud & Co. outlined self-employment support available to contractors and how to go about claiming it.

Kicking things off was Caroline, who described contractors as the “kingpin” of the forestry sector. Touching on cashflow issues and stimulating markets, she said: “Stocks of raw materials are reportedly high, which to some degree mitigates the risk of difficulties in critical supply chains. The issue is if the panel-board sector restarts at scale in advance of the supply of co-products or the re-establishment of waste-wood supply chains, will the sawlog material be able to go to market?”

Caroline also acknowledged that contractors have been struggling to get continuous manual work, but Forestry England has now resumed chainsaw operations where it is safe to do so, while Forestry and Land Scotland still has an overall cessation on most manual chainsaw work.

She continued: “Confor and the Forestry Contracting Association (FCA) have also co-operated on our safe worksite proposals and this webinar is just part of efforts to work more closely together. We can’t just wave a magic wand, we know that, and resolve all the issues facing contractors, but we do want to understand those issues better and we do want to work with you so we can highlight to governments and other stakeholders a better understanding of the challenges that face your sector. You are the kingpin in the forestry sector, and we recognise that.

“So, part of tonight is about highlighting the challenges, but maybe also about some of the opportunities that have arisen during COVID, and to explain to you what we are going to do on your behalf as we go towards recovery.”

Host David Lee asked Mark Curtis how he and his business had adapted to life in lockdown. Mark responded: “The mills are working at a reduced capacity so we’re working at a reduced capacity. We’ve had to change our way of doing things.”

He mentioned a lot of paperwork being done away with, with an increased reliance on the likes of tablets and e-working, while reducing the number of meetings held and ensuring those that are held are appropriately socially distanced.

Mark also spoke on the slowdown of work as the pandemic unfolded: “I can only speak for myself at the mill. We were given a quota, and it’s a workable quota. It’s the best you could hope for really in the situation and it’s better than not working at all. It keeps the doors open and the bills paid but it’s obviously not ideal. It’s not ideal for the mill either; they can’t keep taking in timber if it’s not going out.

“Speaking to [the mills], at the minute, there seems to be a bit more buoyancy. Over here, there was an announcement that construction is going back on the 18th (of May), so builders are going to stock up a little bit on timber and you see more lorries on the road with commercial timber, so you can see the wheels slowly starting to move, but I don’t think it’s going to get back to anywhere near what it was. It’s going to be a slow process.”

Andrew Smith said he had spoken with some contractors locally and that it was very much a “mixed bag”. “A lot of the guys who were cutting for sawmills are parked up at the moment and I believe some of them have been parked up for about four weeks now. Some of the smaller contractors cutting for the OSB mill nearby, they’re still going.

“Most of them have had conversations with their finance companies as well so the finance companies seem to be obliging to set up payment holidays for about three months, which is added on to the end of their finance agreement.”

The situation is similar for hauliers, Andrew said. “Some of them are parked up entirely, some of them have moved into general haulage work where they can, and some of them are doing two or three days a week and then parked up for the rest of the time.”

Andrew also mentioned that none of the contractors he has spoken with have any interest in taking on trainees because of the pandemic. “They see it as too much of a burden,” he said, because of the costs involved, but also from the more practical standpoint of having to clean down machines between shifts. No operators are working on double-shift patterns because of the impracticalities of cleaning down machines right now, he added.

Andrew also expressed concern about whether contractors will be willing to take on trainees post-COVID. “Probably not immediately,” he said. “How we will get round that, I’m not sure. At the college just now we’re having various discussions about getting our students through the practical element of their classes. So, for example, guys doing tractor driving, there is a practical element to that assessment as well as a written element in college. We’ve had lots of discussions about how we can get them through that element, so time will tell.”

And his best guess as to activity levels in the next three to six months? “I think locally it is going to depend on how the construction sector gets going again; that’s the big thing. There is no point in cutting sawlog material if there is no market for it.”

Conversely, he noted there is a lot of material getting bought at the local mill, which produces panel fencing. “People are doing bits and pieces in their garden because they have the opportunity.”

Mark Curtis then chimed in with his take on the training issue, saying he thinks it will be at “the back of the queue” when it comes to prioritising work: “Over here, you need to have an experienced operator with a trainee operator, and it isn’t viable. If you are to apply the social distancing, you’re not going to be able to get into a machine and show someone what to do. It’s really hands-on. In some ways you need to show them what not to do, as well as what to do, so you need to be there yourself training them, as any trainer will tell you. At the moment, you are not even allowed to travel together to work with the rules and regulations around social distancing, so training is going to be put on the back burner.”

Toby Allen was able to get through for a brief moment, in which he echoed Andrew’s point about people taking on projects at home during the lockdown. He said: “The garden fencing market has been good. There are a lot of people wanting to get on with projects.”

Rounding off the presentations was Stuart Goodall, who spoke on moving towards the restart and recovery phase. He said: “The Government set tests for when an easing of lockdown can begin and we are now in a position where we are starting to see them proposing ideas for how that easing could start to happen, and it’s coming along at an interesting time because it’s the same time that we’re seeing market demand for timber begin to pick up.

“The positive thing for us is we are a largely outdoor-based industry and we’ve got a number of mills that have experienced the safe working as they’ve continued to produce critical products, which means that we are relatively well placed to operate safely.

“What we’ve been doing is lobbying for the sector to be the vanguard of any easing in the lockdown controls. To support that, we are preparing safe working protocols and we’ve got those in place for nurseries and in forest activity, which we developed with the FCA, and we’re also doing that now for milling.”

Stuart said he had been concerned about different strategies for exiting lockdown beginning to appear across the four UK countries, “but the latest I’m picking up is that it’s starting to come back together and now the governments are focusing on how they can provide protocols for different types of activity like outdoor working, manufacturing or retail, rather than approaching it on a sector-by-sector basis”.

He added: “There is still a possibility of a different speed of progress by country or even within countries, so it’s unlikely there is going to be a total UK movement in tandem. I can see that there could be some quicker progress in some parts of the UK than others, and for me the saving grace in all this is that pretty much every mill is producing a critical product, which then means that anybody supplying them has been OK to work and can continue to work, and hopefully as we see that activity increase overall we will be able to have that flow back up the sector.”

A Q&A session followed, the highlight of which was a question around potential opportunities brought about by the pandemic.

Andrew Smith said that the fact everyone had come together to discuss the issues affecting contractors was in itself an opportunity, indicative of the kind of dialogue that industry could continue to have in the future.

“I think from every situation there are opportunities as well as constraints; one of them is what we are doing now. Would we be doing this without COVID-19? Probably not.”

Caroline Ayre added: “I think the opportunity is that the public and government see forestry as a critical industry; they see it as an essential industry and the goods that we produce as an essential industry, and I think, if anything, we can see a silver lining in that.”

The final word went to Stuart Goodall: “We’ve got no magic wand but we’ve got the opportunity to speak up for the industry, so do please keep telling us what will help and we’ll try to provide as much information as we can to help get through to the next phase.”

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