The writing is on the wall for our industry... we need to attract young people to forestry careers or go the way of the dinosaur.
A study by the Forest Products Sector Council (FPSC) predicts that at a minimum, Canada’s forest products industry will need to attract an additional 40,000 people to careers in our industry by 2020. That’s based on very conservative estimates for retirements, loss of employees to other industries, and growth within the sector. At the upper end of the scale, we may need as many as 120,000 new workers in the next decade.
Here in Alberta, the situation is particularly acute. A booming economy means a very competitive labour market. As a small operator, I am constantly challenged to staff my sawmill and compete with other resource sectors for employees. The consequences of not finding or retaining staff are very real – 14-hour days for me and missed opportunities for our company. Many others are in the same boat.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We have a great thing going in forestry; we just need to tell our story. The industry offers prospective employees a career that’s tailored to fit their skills and lifestyle. Want to work outdoors as a logger, in the mill as an electrician, or behind a desk as an accountant? We have a career for you.
Forestry is sustainable. Like agriculture, we’re based on harvesting a crop, albeit on a much longer cycle. Once we harvest, we replant, and the cycle begins again.
Our forest planning expertise has ensured the viability of the industry for several generations. And we’re developing our knowledge base and becoming better at forest management every day. New mapping and timber inventory techniques are coming on-stream, enhanced understanding of cumulative effects is being achieved through scientific studies, and we’re learning more about how to mitigate the effects of harvesting on animal and plant populations. All of this means that an already sustainable industry is getting even better.
To communicate this to our youth, the Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA) has developed the Work Wild program. Work Wild delivers presentations to high school classes, sets up at trade fairs and works in the post-secondary education system to inform youth about forestry careers.
The program’s messaging is much like what I’ve outlined above. We’ve got a diversity of careers in a great industry: careers that will allow youth to make a difference and enjoy a great lifestyle, no matter what their skill set.
Uptake of the program has been very positive. Many more youth have been reached through the program’s website (www.workwild.ca), social media platform, and advertising campaign that includes billboards, radio spots, bathroom wraps and contests.
Not only have we received an enthusiastic response, but also we have learned that post-secondary enrolment in forestry programs has increased substantially since Work Wild began. At the University of Alberta, first-year enrolment in the forestry program has quadrupled since 2010. Over at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), qualified applicants to the forest technologist program have doubled since 2010. To be sure, there are a variety of factors influencing this phenomenon, including stronger economics for the industry. Still, the trend is very encouraging and points to the tremendous value of getting our message out there.
We need to continue to build on the progress that we have made and keep getting the word out. The rewards for our action are real – adequately staffed facilities, a secure future for the industry... and fewer 14-hour days for me.
Jason Boucher is chair of the Alberta Forest Products Association Board of directors and involved with his family’s sawmill business, Boucher Bros. Lumber Ltd., located in Nampa, Alberta.