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April 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


No easy answer to saw skills shortage

Sawmills across Canada are facing a serious skill shortage in the saw trades and, while there is no easy answer, the BC-based British Columbia Institute of Technology is working with the forest industry to help develop its workforce.

By Kit Tam

Rick Johnson, head filer at a BC Interior sawmill, is worried that five out of seven workers in his saw room will likely retire within the next five years. John Stenson, head filer at a West Coast lumber remanufacturer, roams trade shows in hope of meeting an experienced filer who is open to a job offer. Dave Munson, senior filer at a Nova Scotia sawmill, knew a lot about his trade—except tensioning. (Note: The names of these individuals have been changed for confidentiality purposes.) So when a saw didn’t work properly, he simply replaced it with another one. What do these individuals have in common?

In addition to its regular campus-based program, BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment is developing “distributed education” models targeted at forest companies that need training on their terms—where, when, how—and targeted to the specific needs of companies.

Their companies, and many more like them in wood manufacturing operations across North America, face a common challenge—a severe shortage of skilled labour in the saw trades. In 2004, Canada will process over 200 million cubic metres of roundwood logs and produce more than 23 billion board feet of softwood and hardwood lumber. Part of this volume is sold for further processing by lumber remanufacturers before it proceeds through various value-added processes. In both primary and secondary breakdowns, there is a common element that makes all this activity possible—the skills of a sawfiler.

When the sawfiler’s job is done properly, the mill hums. Productivity is high. Production volume and on-grade bonuses throughout the system reflect a job well done. In some ways, the sawfiler’s job sounds easy. But a wide range of variables is involved. Weather and temperatures, for example, affect most aspects of mill operations from the forest to the log deck and many of the manufacturing steps inside the mill. Handling of frozen logs requires a different approach than when they are processed in mid-summer. Wear and tear on equipment is higher. Processing of dead, dry beetle-kill lodgepole pine requires a different sawing approach from high-density hardwoods such as maple. And a worker who is trained only to sharpen the saw is frequently at a loss to figure out how to bench one.

BCIT’s client list reads like a roster of blue chip forest companies; Tembec, Canfor, Weyerhaeuser and Tolko are just a few of the companies that have recently sent employees to BCIT for saw trades training and upgrading.

This is a trade requiring skills that take years to develop, and even longer to hone to perfection. The problem is, Canada’s workforce is aging. According to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 48 per cent of Canada’s workforce will be 55-64 years old by 2015. In the skilled trades, data presented at a Business Council of BC conference during 2004 forecast that the 2010 Olympics notwithstanding, 50 per cent of job openings from 2003 to 2015 will be due to retirements. Data for the saw trades are not available, but a random sample of apprentices enrolled in one saw filing class at Burnaby, BC-based British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) shows that out of 15 companies from BC to Ontario that are represented in the class, 10 had 25 per cent or more of their saw rooms dominated by workers older than 55 years.

Well-trained and experienced filers are hard to come by, and many companies are doing their best to keep the ones they have. Is there a crisis looming in the saw trades? The consensus among mill operators is “yes.” They say it is a severe skills shortage with serious implications for sawmills and the ability of companies to compete in the global marketplace. “I have 12 people working in the saw room,” says Cathy Pater, head filer at Welco Lumber, “and four of them are over 50 years old.” Companies have been hit hard in the forest industry downturn of the past decade and many of the smaller firms have folded. Most of the experienced hands at these mills have found other jobs and left the industry altogether. Their knowledge is lost.

More than that, the industry loses a huge wealth of experience gained over many years. And the workers who remain are edging ever closer to retirement. “Eventually, we’ll have an increasing number of mills with no experienced filers,” Pater says. “The mills are not securing their futures.” She, and Welco, are taking a proactive approach. In addition to fostering a company culture that is focused on mentoring and passing on knowledge to young recruits, Pater is working with BCIT to further train the next generation of saw filers at the Washington-based mill. BCIT was chosen because of its reputation for quality and practical transfer of knowledge and skills to the industry.

Dennis Reid has been the chief instructor for the saw trades program at BCIT since 1991. His reputation spreads far and wide, with former students from Canada’s West Coast to the east continuing to supply him with new students. And now the Americans are looking for help. This latest development is not surprising to manufacturers and other service providers in BC, where practically every sawfiler in the province has passed through the shop at BCIT. Canfor, Interfor, Weldwood, Weyerhaeuser, Riverside, Tolko and Tembec: these are just a few of the companies Canada-wide that recently have sent employees to BCIT for saw trades training and upgrading. BCIT’s program is “probably the best in the world,” says Bruce Lehmann of Thin Kerf Technologies of Surrey, BC. It’s an assessment that is echoed by many others in the industry.

Much of the accolade is due to BCIT’s knack for hiring instructors with heart. They, in turn, pass on their knowledge and passion to their students. “This is a very practical program,” says Dan Carew, who works in Tembec’s Ontario operations, and recently finished his Level 2 Certification as a saw filer at BCIT. The technical training is excellent, he says, but probably the single most important thing he learned at BCIT is the importance of preparation. Doing things properly. “Dennis is inspirational. He passes on a passion for the job rather than just doing a job.” This in itself is a strong calling card in an industry where mill managers are willing to pay a premium for employees with good work attitudes. And if those employees have the skills to help improve productivity, or achieve higher margins, companies will court them any way they can.

In some cases, even if it means hiring somebody else’s well trained workers. This is a touchy subject in the industry. It’s poaching, pure and simple. It’s spoken about in hushed tones, and with understandable resentment. But it’s generally acknowledged as endemic in the industry. And workers in the saw trades say it’s a major disincentive for employers to commit funds to training. Reid is clear on the implications: if this practice continues, he warns, it could lead to decertification of the trades. The irony is, Canada’s certification-based training is precisely why some American companies are looking at BCIT.

They can get the quality of training that comes with BCIT’s certification program that they can’t get at home. BCIT is happy to oblige. In addition to its regular campus-based programs, the School of Construction and the Environment, which recently unveiled its strategic plan for services to the forest industry, is developing “distributed education” models targeted at companies that need training on their terms—where, when, how— and targeted to their specific needs. “Distributed education is a core part of our strategy moving forwards,” says John English, dean of the school. “We are making it easier, less expensive and more convenient for forest sector companies to develop their workforce, whether it is in the saw trades, design, construction or any other sub-sector of the industry.” Unless something is done, the skills shortage in the saw trades will likely lead to more outsourcing at the mill level, industry sources say.

More saw shops will set up business to fix the problems that manufacturers do not have the skilled workforce to fix. The consequences for the mills would include more downtime, lower productivity, lower lumber recovery, higher levels of safety infractions, lower competitiveness and lower profits. Indeed, a recipe for more mill closures. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are solutions, but no quick fixes. Many issues are involved. The seniority principle at work in most sawmills adds another level of complexity. Union-hands will say off-the-record that the seniority principle is a major cause of the skills shortage.

It is another disincentive for companies to pay the significant cost of apprenticeship training when seniority dictates who gets trained. Attitude and aptitude need to be given stronger weight in the apprenticeship selection process, they say. Management and union representatives both say the current system of apprenticeship selection has to change. But it will take very strong leadership and vision, and a partnership of union and management that is committed to change, before this system can be improved for the betterment of both. For the sake of the whole supply chain in wood products, it’s worth the effort.

Kit Tam is vice president, communications, at Woodbridge Associates Inc (www.woodbridgeassociates.com). She can be reached at kt@woodbridgeassociates.com  .

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