Forest sector losing jobs — but desperately needs more skilled workers
Despite mill shutdowns and increased raw log exports, there's 'more work than you can shake a stick at'
As steady streams of raw logs flow overseas, and hefty softwood lumber bills blockade the south, B.C.'s forest sector can look gloomy on the horizon.
Many have been quick to point the finger. During the provincial election campaign, NDP leader John Horgan has routinely blamed Christy Clark for the loss of 20,000 jobs, while the Liberal leader vows to protect the industry from Trump's tariffs.
But some businesses are facing the opposite problem: technical jobs are going unfilled due to a shortage of skilled workers.
"We have more work than we can shake a stick at," said Jonathan Lok, managing partner at Strategic Natural Resource Consultants, a forest management firm.
And the shortage — brought on by a confluence of retiring workers and disinterested millennials — can mean less timber on the market.
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Demand for technologists
Lok says there's a hot demand for forest technologists — skilled workers who help develop environmental assessments, map out proposed cut blocks, and plan for harvesting and replanting.
But firms in rural areas often struggle to recruit workers entering the job market. When jobs go unfilled, it can keep companies from reaching their production targets, and reduce the overall timber supply.
Lok says current workers in these roles are retiring, while many others are swiftly moving on to government and managerial roles. And many new graduates simply don't want to work in rural B.C.
"The schools are full — and many of them have waiting lists," he said.
"[But] once people graduate, having folks come to terms with where the jobs are and what the jobs are doesn't necessarily always jive."
"There's a glaring hole that's left, not only in the business and the work profile, but in the community as well."
Smooth sailing, or tough times?
According to Steve Finn, head of BCIT's Forest and Natural Areas Management program, forestry has gotten a bit of a 'bad rap' in recent years as not being a viable career option for millennials, which he says is partly attributable to the demand for jobs.
"The industry has gone in cycles, and we're definitely on a high with the number of opportunities," he said. "Things are smooth sailing from our perspective, regardless of what's happening with softwood lumber."
That's not to say that jobs haven't been lost. Thousands of British Columbians have been handed pink slips while sawmills and pulp and paper mills scramble for fibre.
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Mill closures have come to define the modern legacy of the sector, and politicians have been quick to point the finger at raw log exports. According to a think-tank report released earlier this year, some 3,000 workers could have been employed had B.C. processed the 6.3 million cubic metres of raw logs it exported in 2016.
Industry in transition
But according to John Innes, University of British Columbia's dean of forestry, the job losses aren't the sign of a flailing industry. Rather, they signal a transition.
"There are jobs being lost — but a lot of that is due to technology," said Innes. "Mills are getting increasingly efficient and they are using automation, and a lot of that automation is replacing people."
On the other hand, Innes noted 20,000 new jobs are being forecasted, both to replace retiring workers and to fill new technical roles.
"Despite the issues that we're going to be facing in the coming months with softwood lumber, companies are declaring record profits," he said.
"Forestry is doing extremely well, and it will continue doing well. But there will be some casualties."
Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: @jonvhernandez