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Online training —for the forest industry
To attract, and retain, good employees, forest companies need to offer training opportunities, but it can be a challenge to free up people to send them off-site. The BC Institute of Technology offers a new training option: a part-time, distance learning model that is onlinedriven.

By Kit Tam

Nearly one in three Canadian employers has difficulty finding the right people to fill their skilled job openings, according to a recent survey by Manpower Inc. This situation has been developing for some time—and it is not about to get better any time soon. For years, skilled labour shortages have permeated virtually every industrial sector. During busy times, shortages became acute; but this time it’s different. Driven by regional and global demographic shifts such as an aging population in traditional supply areas, a declining birth rate and migration, today’s shortages are becoming permanent. Any easing of the labour market in future is expected to be temporary and short-lived.

Skilled labour shortages are particularly acute in Canada’s capital-intensive forest industry. It’s a technology-based business where attraction, recruitment and retention have long been an enormous challenge. As in other sectors, the war for talent has morphed into a battle for retention. And training—or more broadly, career development—is proving to be a key strategy used by leading-edge firms to keep their star employees and potential future leaders.

For a long time, wood and forest products manufacturers have found it a challenge to send their employees off site for training and skills upgrading. Extensive interviews showed that employers wanted to support the personal and professional development of their workforce, but the costs were prohibitive.

Most companies couldn’t afford to lose a worker for weeks, or months, at a time. There were travel and accommodation expenses and the cost of a replacement worker at the mill or plant. Furthermore, many workers didn’t want to leave their families for extended periods of time—or to lose pay in the process. Yet, traditionally, workforce training and skills upgrading typically was delivered through a post-secondary or private sector organization, on campus, in or near an urban centre—in other words, away from the communities where manufacturing often takes place.

“This situation was unsustainable,” says John English, dean of the School of Construction and the Environment at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). “It required new and innovative approaches to education and skills training for the wood and forest products sector.”
 
In 2005, under English’s leadership, the school temporarily removed its wood products manufacturing program from the curriculum in order to thoroughly reassess the program. Every aspect was put under the microscope—the industry’s needs, the target student base, program content, teaching methods and the most effective delivery model. The result is an updated, groundbreaking and exciting new program that is gaining the industry’s enthusiastic support.

John McDonald (left), the head of BCIT’s Industrial Wood Processing and Management (IWPM) program with students Steve Hildebrant and Adrien Chabot from Canfor. IWPM is a parttime, blended distance learning model that is online-driven and focused on people who are already working in the wood products industry.

“This program is exactly what the Vanderhoof, BC-based BID Construction. The program, called Industrial Wood Processing and Management—or IWPM (www.bcit.ca/construction/iwpm)—has shifted its focus. It has gone from a fulltime, classroom-bound set of activities teaching young kids—many of whom were fresh out of high school—to a parttime, blended distance learning model that is online-driven and focused on people who already are working in the wood products industry. Convenience, flexibility and cost-effectiveness are key features of the new program. The convenience is a major attraction for students who already are carrying a full time load at their workplace.

“I wouldn’t be in this program if it were campus-bound,” says student David McKinnon. McKinnon is typical of the new breed of “hands-on” technology- based workers who have enrolled in IWPM. At Interfor’s Adams Lake division, he is helping to implement a $100 million state-of-the-art interior sawmill designed to process small wood and mountain pine beetle-affected wood.

McKinnon has a university degree in computer science and sees an opportunity for advancement by taking BCIT’s IWPM program. “This program rounds off my education to give me more of an operational, manufacturing background,” he says. “Its best feature is the ability to take the courses remotely, from work or home, when it’s convenient for me.”

Others students emphasize that the BCIT program is much more than simply a correspondence course. “There is a lot of structure in the IWPM program,” says Adrien Chabot, plant manager at Canfor’s Clear Lake sawmill. “The instructors keep you moving through the courses on a weekly basis and they make sure you’re not falling behind.”

IWPM’s course designers and instructors are chosen for their strong operational background in wood products manufacturing. It’s as indispensable as Stanley Cup playoff experience. They have “been there and done that.” Working with tomorrow’s superstars, BCIT program designers and instructors add an indispensable depth of knowledge. That’s why the new program has much credibility in the eyes of people working in the industry.

The IWPM program uses a technology called Elluminate Live! to bring students together in an online classroom, via the Internet, just as if they were physically in one place. It’s a popular feature with students. Requiring no more than a computer, headset with microphone and Internet access, the class can meet online to review progress, discuss issues, take in a presentation, watch the instructor draw on a whiteboard or step into the slot and take control of the whiteboard themselves.

Location is not an issue. Students enrol in IWPM from all over British Columbia. Being online means that an
increasing number come from outside traditional teaching boundaries as well—from Washington State to Pakistan. One IWPM instructor held an Elluminate Live! session from Vancouver, then moved on to hold the next one while on business in South Africa and the third one from England. Class time is scheduled in consultation between all students and the instructor.

When time zone differences pose an issue, they accommodate each other by holding one class when it is convenient for students in one time zone and a following class when it is convenient for students in another time zone. The industry’s leading-edge firms are at the forefront in helping to develop the program content and fully utilize it within their own organizations.

“The IWPM program is a core part of Canfor’s workforce competitiveness and retention strategies,” says Don Kayne, vice-president of wood products marketing and sales at Canfor Corp.

Other manufacturers are moving in the same direction as Canfor. Working with BCIT, Interfor and West Fraser are also moving to incorporate IWPM into their workforce development strategies. Firms such as Tolko and Dunkley have sent students from their operations.

And it’s not just “the majors” who see promise in the program. Others, such as Winton Global and East Fraser Fiber, are reviewing the curriculum with interest. All of these firms see IWPM as a means to grow their company from within and invest in the long term where it counts most—their people. What the IWPM program offers are flexibility and cost-effectiveness— these are features built into the program by BCIT to make it easier for smaller firms to outsource their training and skills upgrading.

Students don’t have to take the full program to achieve certificate or diploma credentials. They can if they want to. Or they can cherry-pick the specific courses they want—when they need them. So, if a manufacturer wants to move one of its maintenance staff into management and supervision, the employee can enrol in just the management and supervision components of the program. Conversely, if someone in management chooses to upgrade to a stronger technical background, he or she can enrol in one or more of the technical courses.

There is a high level of return on investment (ROI) in the IWPM program for manufacturers who are willing and able to offer a systematic program of professional development benefits to their workforce.

This is because the students who enrol in IWPM typically are motivated, often self-motivated, and they see opportunities for advancement within their firms. They are not the ones who, in the past, may have walked down the road and taken a job in a competing firm because it offered a dollar more. These increasingly highly skilled employees offer the best bet for a high return on investment from their employers. And, increasingly, companies are willing to invest in them—truly a win-win.

Ultimately, the labour market crisis lies not so much in a shortage of skilled labour, but rather in the challenge of putting the right people, with the right skills, in the right location, at the right time and the right price. This is an opportunity that the experienced professionals running the Industrial Wood Processing and Management program relish and are addressing head-on. Judging by the enthusiastic initial feedback from employers and students on the new IWPM program, BCIT looks to be doing it, and doing it right.

Kit Tam is the director of Industry Services at BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment. She can be reached at Kit_Tam@bcit.ca.