By Robin Brunet
Much has been made about the need for more fallers and truckers, but shortages are also impacting a lower-profile segment of the industry: saw filers. “The situation is so bad that I recently took on a 57-year old benchman apprentice, knowing fully well he’ll only be around for five years,” says Marty Vatkin, head filer for Interfor’s Adams Lake sawmill.
Bryan Glaister, president of the British Columbia Saw Filers Association, (BCSFA) adds, “Schooling for our trade has become problematic, and people are retiring from the industry not individually, but in groups. These factors make workforce replenishment all the more difficult.” Glaister is speaking of all three facets that comprise the trade: saw fitting, circular saw filer, and bench person.
To put the issue into perspective, the BCSFA has a membership of about 150; when Glaister reports widespread rumours that five filers on Vancouver Island are going to retire in 2015, that’s a substantial impact on his sector.
Filing requires abundant high tech gear and skill, not to mention the ability to repair and maintain sawmilling equipment. However, during the downturn of 2008-09 when mills either closed or radically curtailed operations, many of these professionals became truckers or moved on to the oil and gas industry.
Also during the recession, a four-year apprenticeship program developed by the BCFSA and conducted at the British Columbia Institute of Technology was shut down. Today, a similar program is taught by Thompson Rivers University, Williams Lake Campus, Vatkin says it has not enjoyed much success. “For one thing, the program closed for a year when the original instructor left the school and a search was conducted for his replacement,” he says. “Also, nobody wants to take classes at Williams Lake; overall, enrolment is only about 15 people per class.”
Now that mills are increasing production to meet demand from the U.S. and overseas, they’re trying to make up for the filers they lost during the recession. Would-be filers now require only one ticket to get into the trade, compared to the previous three tickets. “Unfortunately this strategy, which was intended to attract more people and shorten apprenticeship time, is a flop,” says Vatkin. “It hasn’t attracted any extra volume. And even though newcomers may get a ticket faster, they bring far less experience to the table.”
Vatkin, 55, who entered the trade as a teenager, says he has “workers in the file room at Adams Lake, but nobody certified. I could easily accommodate 12 people, but I have just three men who are saw changers, two circular filer apprentices, and my apprentice benchman – and work is heating up in a hurry.” On one occasion, Vatkin advertised for a filing position and waited one and a half years for a reply.
Indeed, typical is the following September 2013 post from a BCSFA member on the Association’s discussion forum: “We have had an ad in paper and online and been actively pursuing a filer for over two months now, and not one application or call. Where has everyone gone? Is this the beginning of the end of the filing trade? We have four of us in our mill all set to retire in the next one to three years; I suggested apprentices, but [the mill owners] were not too warm on the idea.”
Equally typical is the reply from another poster: “Don’t worry about it, most companies have the same attitude, lol. Let them deal with it when you all retire.”
To a degree, automation is a solution to labour shortages. Robotic grinders, automatic benching systems and tippers and other equipment are available to mills that can’t train fast enough. “A lot of operations are leaning toward automation to make up for the manpower loss,” says Glaister. “The big forest companies in B.C. have invested in automated machines.”
Veteran filers like Vatkin welcome more automation. “It won’t put people out of work, it will merely lessen the intensity of our work load and prevent benchmen from skipping over other duties, as is the case now,” he says. Automation also helps filing rooms keep up with the optimization of throughput and grade that is being achieved in sawmills throughout the province. But Vatkin insists that more apprentices have to come into the fold too.
To that end, he and other Association members are actively engaged in conversations with forest companies in the hopes they will invest in manpower as well as machines. “One option is to do more in-house training,” he says. “So far we haven’t made any headway, but at least a dialogue has begun.”
Meanwhile, the BCSFA is pursuing ways to draw younger folk to a saw filing career. “We have to reverse the flow of kids to Fort MacMurray,” says Glaister.
To which Vatkin adds, “We have to do a better job of selling our trade. For starters, you can easily make over $100,000 a year as an experienced saw filer, and unlike other jobs in the resource sector, you get to go home at night.”