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Industry has talent shortage…or does it?

Don’t sweat wood products markets: There’s plenty to worry about when it comes to staffing, transport, and fibre costs. That’s the message from this year’s COFI CEO panel.


April 4, 2014
By Scott Jamieson

The customary end to the Council of Forest Industries annual conference featured CEOs from some of western Canada’s major forest products companies – Ron Gorman, president and CEO of Gorman Bros. Lumber Ltd.; Ted Seraphim, president and CEO of West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd.; and Anne Giardini, president, Weyerhaeuser Company Ltd. With market forecasts generally positive, the trio did not waste too much time discussing housing starts or the Asian market.

“The industry tends to focus on things we can’t control, such as US housing starts,” Seraphim told delegates. “The medium term view through to 2017 looks very good, so we’re confident in the market. The reality is that capacity trends will influence the industry mid term as much as where housing starts end up next year.”

He added that the skill with which the BC industry survived the long downturn in itself inspires considerable confidence among companies and their employees. “When you reflect that we survived 500,000 housing start levels and a dollar at par, we’re very confident in our ability to thrive in the future.”

What staff shortage?

Factors over which sawmillers have more control include recruiting and fibre costs. Particularly when it comes to attracting the industry’s next generation, the CEO panelists agree that much more can be done. Giardini notes that steps include promoting significantly higher immigration levels into Canada, while Seraphim called for a more concerted effort on the part of industry to present a clear training agenda to government and a more attractive industry portrait to the public.

“We operate in Alberta, so we have a glimpse of what we’ll be facing in BC in the near future. We need to do a lot more to build trades and training programs, and to promote the industry as a lifestyle. Let’s get excited about the industry – it’s a fun industry, it’s high tech. We need a co-ordinated approach to get that across.”

However at least one audience member questioned how open the BC industry really is to embracing young talent in the face of competing industries. John Innes, dean and FRBC chair of forest management at the University of British Columbia (UBC) asked panelists to look for more creative solutions to finding spots for the stream of co-op students coming through the system. With 800 students in the UBC forestry program, it would seem a ready source of the new talent the industry so badly needs.

“We are facing a very tough time finding companies to place our co-op students, which seems to run counter to industry claims of a skills shortage,” Innes noted during question period.

Gorman and Seraphim suggested that students from the regions in which they have operations would stand a better chance of landing a placement, although Giardini stressed that the onus is on industry to do the utmost to find positions for the young talent trying to break into the industry.