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Editorial: Now is the time to address industry challenges

Aug. 10, 2018 - Inevitably in a cyclical industry during the up swing companies work furiously to bring in as much profit as possible, and during the hard times sit around and ponder, what can we do to fix this?

August 10, 2018  By  Maria Church

There is no question we are in an upswing with North American sawmills taking full advantage of record high lumber prices. Russ Taylor notes in his mid-year market report on page 44 that mill prices for all lumber species in North America have been trending higher since preliminary U.S. import duties began in February last year. Canadian mills are scrambling to meet high demand for that pricey lumber in the U.S.

While this is good news, Russ includes a cautionary note in his report: “The thing all will need to remember is that the entire supply chain (from loggers through to customers) needs to be properly managed and maintained if strong operating results are to be achieved.”

In other words, yes, we’re seeing record profits, but they won’t last for Canadian companies if their supply chain has a weak link. And the weak links are showing, and have been for years. Some are concerned the links will break.

The weakest link for most mills is the skilled labour shortage. This shortage is felt all the way through the supply chain with contractors in particular struggling to recruit and retain quality operators.


Dan O’Brien, a logger in the Prince George, B.C., area, took matters into his own hands when he launched O’Brien Training in 2005 to teach new operators. The school is able to take walk-ins off the street and graduate them as skilled forestry operators with valuable experience in a live-logging operation. Not surprisingly, O’Brien is rarely scrambling to fill operator positions in his logging outfits. (Read more on page 20). But most contractors aren’t so lucky.

“You’ve got the perfect storm happening. Less drivers, less contractors, and less operators, and the demand has never been higher,” O’Brien says. “Industry needs to get on board with training.”

That’s not to say sawmills aren’t aware it’s happening and taking corrective measures. Kara Biles, Canfor’s director of leadership and learning, has the Final Cut column in this issue (page 58) in which she discusses five strategies Canfor is employing to improve attraction, recruitment and retention. “Our success, and success throughout the industry, requires innovation, digital skills development and the ability to effectively transfer knowledge and capabilities as baby boomers retire,” Kara wisely states.

The time is now, while the going is good, for Canadian sawmills and contractors to take corrective action, to invest in the future. That might mean adding new HR policies to appeal to a younger generation of workers, putting aside funding to train prospective employees, or investing in technology that’s going to automate the business.

It may be faux pas to discuss replacing jobs with machines at your local town hall meeting, but automation is the future of the industry and will not only increase efficiency and optimization, but will address the labour shortage. That doesn’t necessarily translate to fewer jobs; it means a different kind of job that is likely more appealing to today’s computer savvy young adults.

Read up on the latest in automation for sawmills — predictive maintenance, X-ray scanning and near infrared spectroscopy — on page 42 with our featured coverage of OptiSaw: Mill Optimization and Automation Forum that took place June 5 in Richmond, B.C.

We’re hosting our second OptiSaw this year in Montreal on Nov. 28. Check out the agenda so far at www.optisaw.com, and feel free to reach out with presentation requests or proposals by emailing me at mchurch@annexbusinessmedia.com, or calling 226-931-1396.

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