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A shortage of workers in the forest industry?

It’s an odd situation, but the forest industry is experiencing a shortage of certain skilled workers at a time when the industry as a whole is seeing large-scale layoffs.

By Jim Stirlinghe

The word “uncertainties” doesn’t really cut it. Confusing, stressful and unprecedented are among other adjectives to be added to the mix. The forest sector in British Columbia is experiencing massive job losses and layoffs at the same time as an acute and across-the-board shortage of skilled labour.On the surface that sounds contradictory. Apply A to B and the problem shrinks, right? Well, no, not really, because nothingin the forest sector these days is that simple.

In the Prince George region, an estimated 3,500 jobs have been impacted with more in the Cariboo region to the south.Across BC, the estimate is closer to 10,000 jobs. These estimates include a best-guess in logging and trucking, as well as the wood product manufacturing sectors.

The figures don’t, however, address the collateral effect in other layers of the many forestry-dependent communities in BC.Some mill owners have announced permanent closures. Tough as that is, at least the dislocated workers know where they stand. Many more mills are in the indefinite closure category. Some might return when economic factors improve the industry’s operating conditions, others won’t. But overall, the prognosis is not promising for affected workers with mortgages and mouths to feed.

Those jobs in the laid-off category through shift reductions and shorter work weeks would appear to be on the front line of recall when things turn around. But no one can tell laid-off workers when that might be.

The mill owners don’t know. Those operations still running are hunkered down in survival mode assessing their individual operating realities day by day, week by week. Loggers and truckers, similarly, have no idea what will happen this summer logging season—let alone next winter. Their suppliers are in the same rudderless boat. Some logging contractors have decided this is the right time to retire from the business.

Several groups are responding to the jobless crisis. TheUnited Steelworkers Local 1-424 in Prince George is working with the federal and provincial governments and private sector partners to set up a regional response program for laid-off workers. Its goal is establishment of a one-stop information and job centre where laid-off workers can go to become aware of their options and what programs are out there that might help them.The federal government, for example, has various programs including a Skills Development Benefit Program which can help retrain workers if they meet specific qualification criteria.

Quantifying the extent of the labour shortages in the forest industry is difficult.But the very number and diversity of efforts being made—such as forest industry job fairs—to recruit workers suggests the problem is significant and growing across Canada.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that numbers of laid-off workers, driven by necessity, have found other jobs on their own both in and out of the forest industry and the province.

On the labour shortage side of the equation, progress is being made albeit sometimes of the two steps forward, one step back variety. Governments, learning institutions (public and private), business groups and individual forest companies are all making their pitches to attract new skilled labour. Quantifying the extent and depth of the labour shortages is difficult. But the very number and diversity of efforts being made to recruit workers suggests the problem—and the competition—is significant and growing across Canada.

The common denominator is an aging population across many industries and jurisdictions. The BC mining industry, for example, estimates half its present workers will retire within the next 10 years. Job fairs have become part of the forest industry’s strategy to attract new workers. Last year, a worker shortage committee with industry and First Nations representation resulted in a forest industry career expo being held in Cranbrook, BC. The idea behind the two-day event was to present a showcase reflecting the diversity of jobs available in the forest industry. Tembec Inc, a large forest company operating in the area, reported staffing deficiencies from logging equipment
operators, truckers and road construction crews to people on the planning and consulting side of the business.

The regional business community, helped by federal funding, hosted job fairs earlier this year in Mackenzie and Prince George to help bridge the gap between laid off forest workers and new job opportunities.

More job hunters were unfortunately added to the industry after a fire destroyed Canfor’s North Central plywood plant in Prince George, BC in May, throwing 285 people out of work. To help out, a job fair was scheduled to be held in late June in the city. Forestry giant Weyerhaeuser was among the companies that were signed up to participate. Individual forest companies have also launched their own initiatives. The Teal-Jones Group, for instance, held two days of interviews in Prince George for millwrights, saw filers, electricians and welders for positions in its coastal sawmills.BC’s four logging associations have developed a logging equipment operators training program. The BC Forest Safety Council and the BC Trucking Association are working to standardize a Class 1 driver training system.

The University of Northern BC(UNBC) is trying to buck a national trend of declining enrolments in forestry programs, despite a high demand for skilled forest management professionals. This fall, UNBC will launch a curriculum in forest ecology and management. The program includes a range of minor options, and takes a landscape perspective of forest management.

The news is less encouraging at theCollege of New Caledonia where a budget crunch has axed the Foresty ResourceTechnology program due in part to low enrolment. The college has left the door open to another broader program of forest and natural resources.

The Central Interior Logging Association is among those urging the college to keep a forestry program intact. Association general manager Rick Publicover says studies indicate a shortage of 500 forest professionals and technologists in BC.“These people are a key to the success and growth of the industry in the future,”he says.