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Forest industry: Help wanted
The B.C. forest industry is working to meet its current—and future—people needs, through several initiatives, including classroom visits.
By Jim Stirling
This past winter and spring proved to be a very good season for log harvesting and hauling contractors in central and northern British Columbia.
“Everyone who wanted to work was working,” summarized MaryAnne Arcand, executive director of the Central Interior Logging Association (CILA) based in Prince George.
But there wasn’t much time for the loggers to catch their collective breaths. “Break-up is much shorter now,” said Arcand. “It’s not like it used to be.” Some sawmills have pretty low inventories in their yards and they need to keep the wood flowing, she added. That’s one reason why loggers were back at work before they knew it. But first they had to find the equipment they needed, or the parts necessary to keep older pieces of equipment efficiently functioning and—of course—the people qualified to operate that equipment.
The lack of skilled labour is a recurring theme in the industry. The shortages are a long term challenge.
“Logging truck drivers are needed everywhere and so are experienced loggers right across B.C.,” said Arcand. “And it’s not just here in Canada. It’s a similar situation from New Zealand to South America and Europe.”
The effects of the industry downturn were huge. “Figures show that we’ve lost 75 per cent of our contractor capacity since 2005,” she said.
Exacerbating the forest industry’s problems is that the same factors that contributed to the shortages of skilled loggers and truckers also similarly affect the sawmills and other wood processing plants across B.C. and their recruitment and retention issues. “Without people, business fails,” was how Mark Feldinger succinctly put it during a discussion at the COFI convention in Prince George, held earlier this year. Feldinger is senior vice-president forestry, environment and energy for Canfor Corporation, the largest licencee operating in the Prince George region.
“That capacity issue is going to get more evident and critical,” predicted Arcand. And in typical fashion, there are compounding factors.
The diversification and expansion of the forest industry will compound the situation.”We’re anticipating newer uses for wood fibre,” said Arcand. It’s not just making 2 x 4s any more. But all that fibre in whatever form and whatever its end use first has to be harvested from the forest and transported from the bush. Arcand explained the CILA has offered to act as a contractor broker, where companies looking for experienced loggers and truckers can come to help find what they need.
“We can bundle the smaller sized contractors together to help build capacity.”
Arcand doesn’t foresee any changes in the situation looking forward to next winter’s logging season in the B.C. Interior. It’s widely predicted the demand for softwood lumber products from the traditional U.S. market—and now Asian destinations—will continue to grow. And that demand will be joined by the new range of users keen to utilize more of the wood resource.
After years of meagre pickings and accepting what was offered in B.C., the province’s experienced loggers and loggers who have survived now find themselves in great demand near the top of the food chain.
In terms of meeting the longer term, future needs of the forest industry, school is definitely “in”, in B.C. Chris Lear, manager of forest education for the Council of Forest Industries (COFI), has the task of opening the eyes of Grade 10 to 12 high school students in the British Columbia Interior to the cornucopia of forest industry career opportunities.
During his 15 years in the role, Lear has learned the Grade 10 to 12 age group is where best to direct awareness resources. The forest industry needs young entrants and faces stiff competition for them in a demographically challenged worker recruitment market.
The Forest Products Association of Canada estimates the industry has an urgent need for 60,000 new workers by 2020. Two thirds of those workers will be needed to replace those due for retirement and a further 20,000 to accommodate industry expansion into new products and markets.
“There are probably 150 to 200 different careers offered by the forest industry and it’s more high tech than any other industry in B.C.,” said Lear. “Today, it’s more about brain than brawn.”
The students start to understand that high tech careers require post secondary education, he continued. “We want to attract the brightest and the best and when they train to become that engineer or instrument technician, they can look for employment in their home towns in the region.”
COFI continues to produce and distribute forest industry resources to every high school in B.C. to help classroom teachers weave the material into core curriculum. Lear, an ex-school teacher, also visits classes beginning in Grade 10 from the Cariboo to Fort St. John. He’s designed three programs to help boost insight and pique student interest:
Discover careers in resource management
About 30 to 35 Grade 10 to 12 students participate in one to three-day career awareness sessions.
The students alternate between specific workshops covering everything from archaeology through to cut block engineering and fish and wildlife management. Each of the workshops is led by professionals in the discipline drawn from the forest industry, government or academia.
Discover trades and technology
This program is designed for students with an interest in wood manufacturing plants like sawmills and pulp mills. Once again, the participating students break into small groups to more closely examine an operation’s specific stage of manufacture. They are guided by the people who do the work. “The technological changes going on in our mills require continuous learning and training,” continued Lear. “We try to tell the kids communication skills are essential. And we stress safety throughout all the workshops.” Lear said students don’t realize the range of skills required by the forest industry. He cited as examples human resource specialists and the whole different suite of abilities required in marketing wood products world-wide
This program informs students of what to expect within regional education centres like the College of New Caledonia and the University of Northern British Columbia. The students spend time in the institutions and meet the professors, instructors and enrolled students, said Lear. “Through all this, we try to make people more aware of the importance of the forest industry in B.C.”
Lear said that for the last five years, COFI has awarded convention legacy scholarships. High profile convention speakers can forgo gifts for participating in favour of helping support and encourage deserving young people to further their education. The 10 annual scholarships, valued at $1,000 each, are awarded to students in the B.C. Interior entering post secondary education in a technical or professional area, preferably in the forest industry.
Union responds to changes facing forest workers
United Steelworkers locals in northern British Columbia have been proactive in responding to changes facing regional forest workers.
The union has forged partnerships with government for funding and education providers for the facilities to deliver worker retraining in face of a changing future. The program proved highly successful, attracting more than 600 participants across the region.
In 2011, the Steelworkers applied for and received $3 million in government funding to support Northern Skills Training, a new pilot program.”It gives United Steelworkers members in forestry and mining a chance to enhance their skills and meet changes in technology and take advantage of apprenticeships within the industries where they work,” explained Frank Everitt, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-424 in Prince George in a union backgrounder.
“Working in partnership with industry, education facilities and private trainers ensures the best result for both participants and industry. The Northern Skills Training pilot has a target of 840 participants; today more than 500 are receiving assistance from the program across the north.”
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