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Going from sawmilling to schooling
Skills training has become a critically important issue for the forest industry and the industry is responding, including a proposal by Canfor and partner the Bid Group to convert Canfor’s permanently closed Rustad sawmill in Prince George to a new trades training school.
By Jim Stirling
Skills training has become a critically important issue in British Columbia. Warnings about an impending lack of skilled workers for the province’s sawmills and wood harvesting operations have come to pass in varying degrees of severity across the province.
“I don’t think there’s a magic solution for everyone. Right now, it depends on where you are in the B.C.,” summarized Anne Mauch, director of regulatory issues with the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) in Vancouver.
The overall message, however, is clear for the entire forest industry: if it doesn’t hurt yet, it will.
“From figures I’ve seen, about 30 per cent of the skilled trades workers in the solid wood sector are scheduled for retirement in the next five years,” Mauch added.
The worker shortage crunch is caused by the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, but is exacerbated by a simultaneous convergence of other factors. The recession and prolonged collapse of the U.S. housing market forced sawmill shutdowns and permanent closures. Many workers took early retirement or had to seek employment outside the forest industry. Other resource industries—mining and the oil patch in northern and central B.C.—face the same demographic and skilled worker supply crunch. But they can offer higher wages for transferable skills. Many have responded.
There’s an additional challenge for the B.C. forest industry. Sawmill closures and the timber supply downturn due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic have resurrected the perception of forestry as a sunset industry. The sunset industry tag is not borne out by provincial government statistics. They predict about 29,000 job openings in the north central region’s forest sector between now and 2020. Of those positions, about 4,500 will be new jobs created by economic expansion. But young people may not recognize the industry’s potential or scope.
Wood products are very green environmentally and there are lots of opportunities with that understanding and not just within Canada, pointed out Mauch. Architects and builders are specifying more and different green wood products for use within their structures, she added, while wood residues have a host of high tech applications in bioenergy and wood biofuel products. “Lots of products can be made from wood,” she said.
Forest industry training and awareness is becoming more focused in those directions. COFI, for example, operates careers awareness programs in schools and natural resource camps, continued Mauch.
At the other end of the working life scale, some workers are choosing not to retire when they reach traditional age plateaus. And therein lies another largely unexploited potential for the sawmill industry: mentoring younger workers.
“There hasn’t been that need but now we’re in the reverse of that situation,” said Mauch. “We have to deal with the here and now and we have to deal with the future. It’s a multi-faceted issue within which we need to build flexibility.”
The B.C. government is helping on several levels including upgrading trades training equipment. For example, $3 million has been allocated to purchase new PLCs for use in the North West Community College’s electrical programs and metal lathes for millwright training.
The trades required by B.C.’s interior sawmilling industry varies geographically and with population, noted Doug Routledge, COFI’s vice president forestry and northern operations based in Prince George. A key driver is the degree of transferability between the allied sectors of oil and gas and mining. Some trades, like saw filing, are specific to the forest industry. But others like industrial electricians, who are required to work on instrumentation in the oil and gas pumping stations, for example, are in demand to maintain equipment like microprocessors in the solid wood industry. “It’s much more high-tech,” says Routledge. “Hewers of wood and drawers of water just doesn’t tell the industry’s tale anymore.”
The skills transferability issue was illustrated recently at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. A forestry technician course was in danger of being axed. A diverse group of resource industry associations teamed up to successfully lobby to maintain a resource technician program of which forestry is a component. The lifestyle factor can also kick in with the forest industry’s skilled worker recruitment and retention strategies. The big bucks available in camp jobs in the oil and gas sector are appealing to young workers with few ties, explained Routledge. Older workers prefer being home every night in their established communities. “Our focus, therefore, is in school and after the camp-type phase,” he summarized.
One of the region’s boldest proposals to help tackle the industry’s skilled worker shortage came in the form of an opportunity and challenge for the provincial government. Canfor and partner the Bid Group have asked the provincial government to provide $10 million to convert Canfor’s permanently closed Rustad sawmill in Prince George to a new trades training school. (The $10 million figure is said to be equal to the value of land and buildings on site). The role of the Rustad site would be to add new trades training capacity for the regional resource industries. It’s designed to complement and not replace what’s already available through existing institutions.
“One of the things we see as unique in this property is that the trade school would operate as part of a working industrial complex where students could have access to real-world business settings to learn and apply their trades,” explained Alistair Cook, Canfor’s senior vice president, to city council, which endorsed the proposal. Canfor’s Rustad proposal is a good example of the cooperative approach being taken toward solving the skilled labour shortage problem. “Government, industry, labour, educational institutions—all groups—haven’t been sitting idly
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