By George Fullerton
Finding qualified harvester operators seems to be a perpetual challenge for the forest industry—and with the current contingent of equipment operators aging, bringing new recruits into the industry is essential.
But the industry is working on solutions. Earlier this year, a dinner to celebrate completion of a novel Forestry Machine Operator Training program was held in Turro, Nova Scotia. The honoured guests were eight millennials, who passed intense screening, in-class training, in-seat training, and went on be hired by contractors and had completed several weeks of one-on-one coaching.
Peter Robichaud, executive director of the Canadian Woodlands Forum, emceed the graduation proceedings and dinner. He addressed the trainees, noting they should be very proud of their achievement.
Robichaud pointed out that operating a tree harvester productively, efficiently and safely is a highly technical and demanding job. He went on to extend a special thanks to the contractors who participated in the program by hiring the trainees, and supporting the extended coaching period.
Robichaud said organizers were happy with the success of the program and explained that it established an important precedent for effective operator training. He added that the program brought together special talents in trainers and coaches, in addition to financial and in-kind support from industry and government.
The innovative training program was launched in 2015 by representatives of the Canadian Woodlands Forum, BioApplied Innovation Pathways, Forest Nova Scotia, Forest Liaison, and the Forest Safety Society of Nova Scotia.
Logging contractors have routinely expressed frustration in finding qualified operators. Contractors who undertake to train and new recruits invest a good deal of time and other costs, with no guarantee the recruit will work out.
Contractors see many candidates try out as forest equipment operators, but they often leave because they either lack the required skills or decide that working in the woods is not for them.
Contractors realize a significant cost when they invest in training operators who don’t remain in the job. The costs to contractors, in turn, impacts the entire forest industry.
The Machine Operator Training program organizers developed a comprehensive training program, which included screening applicants to ensure each one possessed the required skillset, attitude and commitment to become a competent and productive machine (harvester) operator. The second step was to train the screened applicants in basic forestry, and harvester operation. The third—and perhaps the most important element—was to match each trainee with a harvest contractor, who would hire the trainee and support them through the on-the-job coaching period.
The training program benefited from financial and in-kind support from Northern Pulp, J.D. Irving, Port Hawkesbury Paper, and Northern Pulp. Funding was also generated from registration fees from contractors involved in the program, and tuition charged to students.
The innovative and progressive approach to training and employment gained attention and financial support from the Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education, and Nova Scotia Forestry Innovation Hub.
The first step in the Machine Operator Training program was to recruit trainees. This was done through a number of different channels such as advertisements and job bank listings. Robichaud said at the end of the exercise, posting the opportunity on advertising web site Kijiji yielded the best results.
The recruitment exercise generated some 60 potential candidates. Each applicant then completed an on-line assessment, administered by Profile XT.
The assessment provides insight into the applicants’ behavioral traits, reasoning, and occupational interests. The results provided a high probability of an applicant’s potential for success as a forestry machine operator. The assessment results also provided certain guidance for on-the-job coaching.
Profile XT developed their peak performance model-assessment tool for a harvester operator, relying on collected data from around the world.
The Machine Operator Training organizers sat down with Profile XT to review their forest worker assessment tool, and only slight tweaking was required to fit the project, explained Rod Badcock with Bio Applied Innovation Pathways.
The assessment tested for verbal and numeric aptitudes, energy level, and even social considerations. The applicants’ individual assessment results were compared against the Profile XT model, and if a candidate possessed the preferred attributes, they were invited to continue in the training program.
Badcock explained that the assessment results highlighted a few traits which were common among their top trainees.
One was that they tend to learn most effectively through experience, rather than instruction. “They have to see it and test it to learn effectively,” he pointed out. As an example, Badcock described telling a trainee that he would be able to travel his machine through a wet spot, and that they would have to go to the spot and test it for themselves, to be assured they should travel through it.
Secondly, the top applicants did not require a highly structured (social) workplace. Working alone suited them fine, or even best. A shift in a machine, with limited human contact, was a comfortable workplace for them.
Thirdly, the applicants were comfortable to work in chaos. While we might not like to think of harvesting as chaos, it continually does present numerous and evolving challenges, very different from operating in a gravel pit or construction site.
The second evaluation step had each applicant test on a Simlog tree harvester simulator, to test their hand/eye coordination and depth perception.
Badcock said the simulator was a very effective tool to evaluate operator potential. He said a number of candidates disqualified from the program, simply because they lacked the skill to move the simulated harvester head to the simulated tree.
While candidates were being screened and tested, organizers were also recruiting contractors who had operator employment opportunities.
Organizers conducted four contractor information sessions, in addition to networking through the Canadian Woodlands Forum, the Safety Society of Nova Scotia, and with forest industry partners.
All of the 17 candidates who successfully completed the screening process were given the opportunity to apply for jobs with the contractors who joined the program. Contractors initially reviewed each candidate’s Profile XT and simulator assessments, and then interviewed selected candidates to see if there looked to be a good personality fit.
Reciprocally, each trainee candidate also reviewed a profile of the contractors to see if they thought they would fit the contractor’s operations, and the geographic region of operations.
From the start, the program’s organizers were determined that every seat in the training program would be tied to a job with a harvest contractor, following formal classroom and in-machine training periods. Essentially, the contractor agreed to hire the trainee and employ him on his machine for at least the coaching period.
Classroom training, with 10 candidates, began early in August 2016, and ran for three weeks, with the focus on studying forestry and logging fundamentals. The in-classroom study was followed by four weeks of basic “in-seat” training, conducted by New Brunswick Community College.
NBCC supplied three instructors, along with two harvesters, a Ponsse Beaver and a Hyundai carrier with a Log Max head, as well as a forwarder. The forest classroom was a Crown forest block, managed by Northern Pulp in Riversdale, about 20 kilometres east of Truro, NS. The in-seat training included night shift operating. In addition to machine operating, candidates also trained in proper maintenance practices, adjustments, troubleshooting and repair.
Following the official four-week instructed training, candidates moved on to a sixteen-week ‘coached’ work period with the contractor who hired them. Forest Liaison provided the on the job coaching.
Forest Liaison, based in Moncton, New Brunswick, is a mechanized harvest training business operated by Carl Tingley. Forest Liaison offers a multitude of training products, including on the job coaching for machine operators. It engaged three coaches to work with the eight students who completed the Machine Operator Training course.
In the first few weeks of the ‘coached’ training period, the coaches would visit and engage with the students two or three times per week, and they prioritized coaching time based on the needs of the students.
“Some students learn very quickly,” explained Tingley. “And the ones that are more motivated to listen and eager to learn generally need less coaching time.”
Tingley pointed out that the coaches worked with the students multiple days in the first four weeks, and then started to spread out the coaching intervals. Coaching intervals were extended for the students who were progressing well and were ready for more ‘alone time’ and development time. Trainees who required more skill development received more frequent coaching visits. Coaching sessions were typically every week, but there was never more than two weeks between sessions, explained Tingley.
The coaches conducted a documented evaluation of the operator at the start of every visit and then identified, by priority, what areas to train and coach for on that day. Tingley said that this procedure is the most effective method, due to the constant changes in physical conditions in the woods, on a day to day basis.
Each coaching visit lasted between four and six hours, depending on the student’s progress.
“We try to use the student’s progress to gauge how much time to spend with them. The operators who are consistently improving require less coaching time, but with other operators who are not consistently improving, or are falling behind, we need to spend more time bringing them along.”
Marc Goodwin works as a coach with Forest Liaison and he pointed out that his tablet has become one of his most important tools for effective coaching.
“When I come on site, I use my handheld tablet to film the operator as he works with the harvester,” Goodwin explained. “Later, I view the video with the operator, and point out actions which need to be corrected. Without the video, I would have to explain the action I want to coach, but communicating or describing the specific incorrect action is not always accurately described or can be incompletely communicated.
”My description of the action and corrected measure may be confusing for the operator—but when we are both looking at the same video, the communication is very effective and coaching is much more effective.”
In addition to completion of the intense training, and a job with a contractor, each trainee was also awarded certification as a Qualified Logging Professional, under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). In awarding the QLP certificates, Peter Robichaud related that SFI recognized the quality of forestry, logging and harvesting training they had received and noted that it exceeded the QLP standard.
Through conversations with the operators and the participating contractors, the training program was a resounding success. The trainees entered the formal training with the qualifications to be successful and land a job. For the contractor, they had the opportunity to employ a person with the required skillset, aptitude and ambition to be a successful operator.
The project team feels that the Forestry Machine Operator Training program can serve as a model for how partnerships between industry organizations and government agencies can effectively support the development of good jobs for people in rural communities in support of Canada’s traditional resource based industries—and they hope to be able to offer more training programs in the future.
On the Cover:
Simple, clean and efficient were the guiding principles for B.C. logger Gregory Jacob when he began his examination of available steep slope log harvesting methods. He was able to get exactly that, and the key new machine in Gregory’s steep slope arsenal is a wheeled John Deere 1910E cut to length forwarder with a Haas winch. Read all about it on page 10 (Cover photo by Jim Stirling).
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