In celebration of 20 years of Forestry at WIT, we talk to Niall O’Neill, forest manager, GreenBelt Ltd.
When Niall O’Neill applied for his current job, he did not imagine he would actually get the position because he thought he did not have enough experience. He applied because he “simply wanted the experience of a forestry-based interview”.
Niall therefore advises others to never doubt their ability, to be confident and to have faith in what they are capable of. He quotes Sir Richard Branson: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later”.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
I manage a large portfolio of forestry, owned by a diverse spectrum of landowners with different needs and desires for their properties. The portfolio can be in excess of 1,500 ha per annum between establishment, management and harvesting. The management of this entails strong communication and organisational skills, liaising with the relevant landowners and contractors to oversee whatever management practice or silvicultural system is required at each site.
Being capable of managing numerous tasks at once and a large workload in tandem with promoting the sector and building relationships with new clients is of paramount importance to expanding the business.
Describe a typical day
A typical day would be contacting forest owners to provide updates on site progress, travelling to multiple sites to oversee work being carried out and give guidance and instructions to sub-contractors, managing budgets and projections for schedules of operations. I often liaise with the Forest Service inspectors regarding submissions of relevant documentation for payment of grant aid on sites.
I carry out site consultations for proposed afforestation or road construction works and thinning operations. Promoting forestry wherever possible at all times is part of the daily routine to try to improve its perception to the general public or as I like to call it “spreading the gospel”.
What are the main challenges?
The main challenges of the job are similar to any other job; time management, financial management and projections. Management of up to 30 sub-contracting staff at a time and ensuring that all health and safety protocols are being adhered to at all times on sites. There is a lot of responsibility with the job but it is very rewarding to see progress and keep clients happy.
The main challenge of the sector is the issue of critical mass. We currently do not have a satisfactory level of forestry in this country compared to our EU counterparts. This is being addressed on an annual basis through the afforestation program. Every year about 6,000 ha of new land is afforested. Given that agriculture is the biggest industry in this country and with the recent dairy expansion, to try to achieve an adequate afforestation program every year is getting more difficult.
I try to improve the perception of forestry to the general public, as the positives of forestry go beyond timber production. It is an opportunity to diversify income, create recreational facilities and benefit the environment through enhancement of the landscape and ecological features.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I love what I do, I take pride in my work and I strive to improve every day. I am young and eager to learn and I see technology as playing a huge role in forestry and forestry activities in the future. By simply improving software could help increase productivity.
interpersonal skills are extremely important. As a forester on the ground in the private sector, you are dealing with people from all walks of life; farmers, landowners, investors, auctioneers, solicitors, plant nurseries, ecologists, archaeologists, the list is endless. Forestry is a permanent land use change and the ability to be able to communicate efficiently, in a positive manner to educate people to make a decision is not something that everyone can do. To get a parcel of land from agriculture to forestry takes a large volume of time, work, energy and commitment.
Motivation and Optimism:
I have a long career ahead of me in forestry, therefore, I have to be hopeful of a bright future, where I feel I have opportunities to learn and progress. I get up every morning with the intentions of doing the best job that I can do that day. I think my work ethic gives me an edge. I am always motivated to learn new methods or techniques to help my personal development which will, in turn, benefit the company.
The diversity of the job is incredible; no two days are the same. Every day you are dealing with different people in different places doing different things. It helps to pass time knowing that you are always on the move to different sites. It is very different to a monotonous nine to five where you know you are going to sit at one desk doing a repetitive exercise for weeks without change.
I was never an office person and always preferred to be outside. This job gives me the capacity to do both, there is an element of paperwork to the job that seems to be increasing all the time but you learn to manage it. I enjoy the responsibility of organising my work week and deciding where and what I will do.
What's not so cool?
My schedule is based around my clients, the majority of whom are from farming backgrounds. That means I have to base my working hours around theirs. This could include meeting clients at 6:00 am in the morning or at 9:00 pm at night on weekdays or even weekends. The work day is scheduled for 9:00 am to 5:30 pm but rarely is this the case.
Personally, I can accept the extra hours as I enjoy the flexibility of the workday. Also what’s not cool is the amount of driving that is required, travelling between sites you will need to be someone who is willing to travel and be happy to be on the road frequently and for long durations.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I saw the position being advertised online for a regional manager with GreenBelt Ltd. I applied for the position, was given the firstinterview, this went very well. I was then subsequently called back for a second interview which also went well and two weeks later I was offered the position. When I applied for the job, I simply wanted the experience of doing a forestry-based interview and never envisaged I would get the position given my “lack of experience”.
A word of advice going into interviews is that you should never doubt your ability, you should be confident and have faith in what you are capable of. As Sir Richard Branson said,“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”
What were the main 'career decision' milestones in your life so far?
The first was applying for forestry at Waterford Institute of Technology; this was the first step down this path. After one month in the course, some people started to drop out or change course. Luckily for me, I had gotten a taste for it and I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
The second was successfully finishing my Master’s degree; it took a huge amount of commitment, effort and time to achieve this and with it came a great satisfaction that this is what really embedded in me that this is what I wanted to do.
The third was taking the job with GreenBelt Ltd.; it was a little overwhelming at the time thinking that I was going from being a student to managing a large region with a huge amount of responsibility. There were plenty of hard days and times when I wondered if I was capable of managing such vast portfolios and budgets but I stay focused and developed methods of management that suited me.
Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
My father Patrick O’Neill is someone who has always supported me in what I wanted to do. When I suggested doing forestry he did not question whether it was an industry that would be regarded as expanding or abundant with jobs. He said it would be a great, healthy job being outdoors and to go for it! I am from Wicklow which is the home of forestry in Ireland and always enjoyed the outdoors so it felt right to give it a try.
Dr Niall Farrelly of Teagasc Agriculture and Food Development Authority. Niall was my supervisor for my Master’s degree and supported me throughout. He also advised me to apply for the job with GreenBelt Ltd. which I wouldn’t have without his advice. He is a role model for myself, he is passionate about what he does and is always eager to learn.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes, it helps me to maintain a healthy lifestyle physically, as an element of most days is outside walking and carrying out physical tasks. The work week from Monday to Friday can be intense and require a lot of work outside the general 9:00 - 5:30 hours. However, most weekends are free and a very fair allocation of annual leave per year allows time to wind down when required.
Education and Training
What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
The subjects I did in school have not had any impact on my career path. The only subject that could relate to what I do now was woodwork; I always enjoyed timber and working with it. Maybe subconsciously this helped me to make a decision.
What is your education to date?
I have a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Land Management in Forestry from Waterford Institute of Technology and a Master of Agricultural Science degree from University College Dublin.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
My master’s degree: This gave me the ability to think outside the box, developing the research strategy for what experimental design I would utilise and the methodology behind it. Also, I developed technically and gained organisational skills which gave me a good basis for a transition into the private forest sector.
Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
Yes, I plan to further my education; it may or may not be directly related to forestry though. I believe you need to have a number of strings to your bow to achieve success and I was considering a project management course or sales and marketing course to help improve my business skills.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
The completion of my Master’s was the most rewarding, it took a significant amount of time, effort and commitment to come to fruition and I still take great pride in my achievement.
The second was being invited to be a member of the Forest Genetics Resource Working Group as the private sector industry representative. This group is made up of a team of experts and relevant stakeholders convened to assess the future of the forest genetic pool and methods to mitigate against climate change and pests and diseases. Being a part of this group is a personal milestone as it proves how far my career has developed over the last few years.
What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career?
I am positive, enthusiastic, motivated and honest.
What is your dream job?
Apart from what I do now, I would have to say a professional golfer given the financial rewards and the potential longevity of the career.
Advice for Others
What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Motivation, organisation, confidence
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
That it requires commitment, you have to be willing to take calls and work outside of designated hours. If you think that you have an interest in forestry and like the prospects of having a job that is diverse, rewarding and different from the regular mould of a career – go for it!!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Work experience with any of the main companies within forestry would quickly give you an idea of what the job is about. There is a spectrum of career opportunities within the forest sector from nursery practice to establishment, management and harvesting. Try to decide which element you are interested in the most and get a few weeks experience to see if it is for you. Or go down the avenue of a forester who does all elements.
These WIT Forestry graduate testimonials were compiled by the Forestry Careers Promotion Group to mark the 20-year anniversary of Forestry courses at WIT in 2018.