Wood Business

Features Mills Sawmilling
Grooming the next-gen: Interfor’s co-op program gives students a taste of forestry


December 8, 2020
By PJ Boyd

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Tara Griener is a co-op student on her second work term as a planning assistant with Interfor. Photo courtesy Interfor.

Tara Griener is what you might call an accidental forester. The native of Timmins, Ont., always envisioned herself going into a career in mining – not working deep among the trees in the interior of B.C.

“I wasn’t fully set on forestry,” she says. “I was nervous going into the industry. You hear from some people that it’s dangerous.”

But Griener, a co-op student, is now on her second work term as a planning assistant with Interfor in Adams Lake, B.C. – some 3,500 kilometres away from her hometown. And those safety concerns? They quickly dried up after a few days on the job.

“Interfor is really safety conscious,” she says. “And they made me feel comfortable when I got there and in every project that I worked on.”

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Griener is impressed with the sector, particularly when it comes to the rehabilitation of roads.

“To put them back to exactly how they were before is something that forestry is exceptionally great at,” she says.

In 2014, Interfor launched its co-op program to help attract and train the next generation of forestry workers.

The intent was to “provide students with the opportunity to complete hands-on work that builds value for the company and contributes to their career and personal development,” says a representative from Interfor. “The current availability of post-secondary education programs geared towards preparing students for a career in forest products is limited. Our aim for the co-op program, and more specifically, for our sawmill operations trainee program, is to teach students the necessary skills and knowledge required for a successful career in this industry.

“Our plan for students that have completed this program is to have them further their leadership training by completing our in-house leadership excellence program (LEAD-X). This is to help prepare recent graduates to transition into a supervisory role within the organization.”

In 2018, the company launched their sawmill operations trainee program. There are opportunities across the board, including operational roles in production, maintenance and forestry. There are also positions available in HR, accounting, sales, marketing, logistics, IT and process controls.

Now there are 37 students in the co-op program at Interfor locations across North America, and five trainees in the sawmill operations trainee program.

Andy Zheng is on his second co-op placement in forestry. He previously worked at Western Forest Products, but moved to Interfor this year to work in safety, quality control and production.

“A co-op like this bridges the gap between employers and students,” says Zheng. “I think that if I hadn’t been through this co-op, I would not sound like someone with the experience needed for companies to hire me.”

Being in the mill, and soaking up the knowledge from the professionals around him, is preparing him for his career, he says. “You need to know what happens in the mills when you’re working in the corporate office as you’ll need to consider all the factors and parameters appropriate to making your decision. That can’t properly be done unless you spend some time in the mill.”

That kind of thinking was echoed by Chelsea Carpenter, an accounting intern at Interfor.

“Recently, I requested a tour of the log yard,” she says. “The tour was very helpful and put certain tasks I’d been assigned into context. It’s exciting to know there is opportunity for growth within my co-op term, and that my experiences aren’t limited to one or two tasks or roles.”

Carpenter plans to return for another placement and hopes to get more exposure to the sawmill side of the business next time.

Benefits to Interfor
The students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the co-op program. The company is also reaping numerous benefits, including building a talent pipeline, tapping into innovative ideas and diversity of thought and providing opportunities for its employees to mentor young workers.

“Our campus program is an important component of our talent development strategy. We are hiring the future leaders of our company and the program sets them up for success by having a plan to develop their technical and leadership skills so they can grow their career,” says Andrew Horahan, Interfor’s vice-president of western operations. “I’m so proud to see the folks coming through the program adding value immediately across our operations.”

Cheryl Beatty, Interfor’s director of finance for B.C. operations, says the campus program provides “huge benefits” to the finance team. “We have been fortunate to employ a diverse group of accomplished students over the past few years, and have had the opportunity to offer full-time employment to some once they’ve finished their degrees,” she says. “The students have brought energy and new ideas to our teams and we strive to provide them with a valuable experience that adds to their in-school learning.”

It’s also an opportunity for the students to determine if Interfor is a good match for them.

Gino Leone completed an eight-month co-op at Interfor as a safety quality control production technician. Photo courtesy Interfor.

Not just fresh faces
Interfor’s co-op program has also been used by existing employees. Gino Leone was on the payroll for two years before he decided to go back to school to finish his business degree.

As part of that program, he completed an eight-month co-op at Interfor as a safety quality control production technician and was eventually moved into sawmill operations. In total, he’s been with the company for seven years.

“When I did my co-op here, it wasn’t just a position,” Leone says. “I got experience in all different aspects of the lumber industry. I got a flavour of sawmill operations, kiln drying, a little bit of woodlands as well with the quality inspections of our raw materials coming in.”

Bright future
Griener sees a lot of opportunity in the forestry sector, and says the chance to learn from seasoned professionals is invaluable.

“A lot of people are retiring right now,” she says. “And a lot of the people who are retiring are the people who have been in the business forever. And personally, those are the people that I want to learn from – the people who have seen it all, and have gone through it all. I think it would be such a waste of knowledge for them to all go away.”

Labour shortage
Initiatives like Interfor’s co-op and sawmill operations trainee programs are key to resolving the industry’s labour shortage. But how big is the labour shortage?

In 2013, the Truck Loggers Association (TLA) led an analysis of the B.C. forest sector labour market and training needs, which projected that by 2022, there would be 4,700 job openings in the B.C. coastal forestry sector alone. This is largely because of the number of forestry workers who will be reaching or have reached retirement age. On top of that, just five per cent of workers aged 24 or younger are joining the industry as a career.

A series of Labour Market Information (LMI) studies conducted by B.C.’s forestry and logging, silviculture, solid wood manufacturing and pulp and paper sectors provides a better picture of the labour shortage in B.C. as a whole. These studies concluded that, over the next 10 years, there will be demand for up to 27,000 forestry workers in the province.

Widening the scope further to look at the national stage, The Greenest Workforce, an initiative launched by the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), forecasts the number of job openings in the industry to spike to 12,895 in 2024.