It’s the People
Bill Clinton became president in 1992 on one slogan – “It’s the economy, stupid.” It was his way of reminding voters that Bush the Original just didn’t get it. While George I was distracted by shiny objects in the first Iraq war, Americans were watching their economy struggle to recover from recession. They would have liked a president who noticed too, and the Republicans paid for their wandering eye with eight years in the desert.
Clinton’s winning slogan did not emerge from one of the presidential debates, as many remember it. It would have been a great one-liner, true, but in reality it was simply a memory aid for his own staffers, hung in his campaign offices to remind everyone to stay on message. When you’re a campaigner putting out fires, it’s easy to drift from your long-term goal. In the end, that will lose you the race.
Similarly, much of our industry is today consumed by the very real need to survive until 2009, or maybe 2010, when the good times will roll again. Yet when the recovery happens (it will), and mills start ramping up (they will), it’ll be getting on too late to realize that we lack the basic raw material we need to succeed in the long run. I don’t mean fibre either. So while we’re all scratching a living right now, we should take a page out of Clinton’s book, make big posters, and hang them in our offices and mills proclaiming our own slogan – “It’s the people, stupid.”
I know it’s hard to imagine a people shortage when many companies are shedding staff faster than my Labrador sheds hair in the spring. But even in this sad market, you only have to look at mills in booming economies like Alberta or BC to see the future. Read this issue’s article on Spray Lake Sawmills near Calgary, and their staffing struggles even now (page19), and you’ll realize that help is getting scarce, and good help scarcer still. Look northwest to the BC Interior, where even now the better mills are looking for staff across Canada, hoping to cash in on the plight of other mills for a short-term skilled staff fix. Then wake up and realize that in a country with near record employment rates, growing high-pay sectors, and increased urbanization, an industry with an old-fashioned aura like ours has little to offer to win the employee sweepstakes of the next decade.
As brilliant as Clinton’s slogan was, it was also frustrating. It’s fine to know what the problem is; finer still to know how to fix it. Our new slogan is the same. We have a big problem, with no quick or permanent fixes. Still, we’re not the first in the wood products industry to face scarce labour, so we can look elsewhere for inspiration.
As the managers at Spray Lake Sawmills note, technology will play a large role. Sawmillers in Sweden and Finland have innovated around scarce and expensive labour for decades, and where a body is not absolutely needed, it’s not there. Optimization, automation, controls, streamlined material handling – all are taken to the extreme. If you think we’re going to compete long term without embracing this, it’s time to change industries.
Yet the more automated we get, the better and more educated those remaining staff members must be. This brings us to the next part of our human resource challenge – attracting the best and the brightest. It’s hard to imagine attracting any of these future stars just now, with nothing but bad news and distress about forestry being portrayed in the local and national media. Moving forward, though, attracting, developing, and retaining technical wizards and market innovators will be critical.
Thankfully, our industry is changing. It will change much more still. It has to. We’ll need fresh blood to drive that process over the next five to 20 years, people with mixed but likely higher skill sets than we’re used to seeing in much of the industry today. Where will they come from?
Maybe you don’t think Virginia when you think industry innovation. Yet the tobacco and moonshine state is striving to develop a cluster of excellence around the wood products sector, complete with industrial training centres dedicated to modern hydraulics, PLCs, drives and more. There’s your technical side.
As for attracting marketing and product innovators, Virginia Tech is busy re-inventing its forestry department with the Nintendo generation in mind. Yes, kids can study traditional solid wood manufacturing and forest management. But the proactive professors are also betting in a big way on the “new forestry.” Students can choose from a host of exciting paths, from bio-technologies and non-timber resources to nanotechnology, all promoted in brochures that look little like the forestry school literature I see north of the border. Spark a kid’s imagination, and we have a chance at attracting the best. The opposite is also true.
So yes, unless we really are stupid, it’s about the people.
Speaking of people, you may notice that this issue includes five articles on independent, privately-owned sawmills and remanufacturers. While the majors incur massive losses quarter after quarter, in part because they can, these people have been creative in searching for ways to stem the bleeding. Higher end products, aggressive management, leaner production styles, residual marketing, non-housing markets, and bioenergy all play a role in these attempts to do things a little differently, and survive.
Scott Jamieson, Editor