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Labour woes continue, but solutions abound at CWF Spring Meeting

Atlantic Canada’s forest industry reconnects at the spring meeting to discuss labour market, fibre supply challenges and new technology.

April 11, 2023  By  Maria Church

The Canadian Woodlands Forum Spring Meeting drew more than 300 members to Moncton, N.B., last week. Photo: Annex Business Media.

Atlantic Canada’s forest industry has a variety of tools and supports to boost recruitment and retention in the sector, but questions remain as to how effective those tools are, and how quickly they can address impending mass retirement.

Speakers at the Canadian Woodland Forum’s 2023 Spring Meeting outlined the labour shortage forecast over the next decade in Atlantic Canada, and offered solutions through business best practices, partnerships, government support, and technology.

Patrick Brannon with Atlantic Provinces Economic Council – an independent, non-profit economic and policy research organization – set the stage for the labour discussions with an overview of the skills challenge in Atlantic Canada.

Patrick Brannon with Atlantic Provinces Economic Council. Photo: Annex Business Media.

The pandemic, Brannon noted, made dramatic changes to the general labour market with work-from-home orders, but the forest industry’s size and labour force was less affected, remaining steady since 2009. However, there is a “reckoning” to come over the next decade, he cautioned, with more than 50 per cent of forestry and manufacturing workers over 45, and around 30 per cent over 55. Those retirements will lead to large vacancies by 2030 in all forestry occupations.


Among his recommended solutions for the forest industry, Brannon dug into automation, noting 2019 data shows Atlantic solid wood product firms lag in technology adoption compared to the Canadian average. Twenty-eight per cent of Atlantic mills were using some form of advanced technology in 2019, compared to 45 per cent Canada-wide, and just four per cent in Atlantic Canada were using emerging technology compared to 10 per cent across the country.

In surveys, Atlantic wood products companies often point to lack of information as a reason they’re not investing in autonomation, as well as doubt it will help the bottom line, Brannon said. Yet research shows automation improves productivity, quality and consistency, as well as improves attraction and retention of workers and leads to new, more desirable jobs.

Brannon acknowledged Atlantic companies are generally smaller than their Canadian counterparts, which means fewer opportunities and less capital for expensive solutions such as cleantech and artificial intelligence. He also noted paper firms in Atlantic Canada were above the national average in technology adoption.

Among Brannon’s other suggestions to address workforce challenges were labour market co-ordination, drawing from underrepresented groups, social infrastructure to attract new workers, better training and wages, and refining the employment insurance program.

Several forestry companies took to the stage to share their business and productivity strategies with peers, among them Terry Mallais with Aurèle Mallais & Fils Ltée (AFM). AFM is a family owned and operated forestry, trucking and civil construction company out of St-Isidore, N.B.

Terry Mallais with Aurèle Mallais & Fils Ltée (left) and J.D. Irving’s Brian Williams (right). Photo: Annex Business Media.

Mallais – the self-described “bean counter” for the company – credited standardization as the first component of their success. When his generation purchased and took over the company, he said it took them five years to standardize their inherited 140 pieces of equipment and narrow in on “the bleeding.” Having the same pieces of equipment allows them to run one training program, compare machine data, forecast costs, and balance the budget, Mallais said.

“Sitting at the desk,” and not in the cabs allows him the time to strategize for the business and set up and renew targets, he said. “You need to know where you want to go with the business.” AFM recently took on snow plowing and crushing and screening services.

J.D. Irving’s Brian Williams took to the stage after Mallais to share their strategy for growing their workforce. Growing the capacity within their current workforce through skills development and technology adoption is one strategy, he said. Another is international recruitment. In 2022, J.D. Irving recruited 77 people from other countries.

Forestry trade designations

Jim Ketterling with J.D. Irving Woodlands Division. Photo: Annex Business Media.

Jim Ketterling with J.D. Irving Woodlands Division updated the CWF members on New Brunswick’s introduction of two new trade accreditations: harvesting equipment operator and forwarder equipment operator.

After years of work among many partners to create the designations, and the first certifications were given out in December, making those operators the first in Canada to hold a forestry equipment operator trade certificate.

“This is all really driven by the operator,” Ketterling said. “You’re the ones applying for it.”

He noted the new designation will likely help with retention of existing operators, as well as recruitment both of trusted experienced operators and new operators.

Julia McMillan with MacMillan Forest Inc. Photo: Annex Business Media.

Nova Scotia is developing its own similar trade designations.

Julia McMillan with MacMillan Forest Inc. in Nova Scotia is on the trade advisory committee along with three other contractors in the province. McMillian said they are heading into the contractor consultation phase of the process, and noted they are looking to be consistent with New Brunswick’s designation.

“We are going to be able to show we have skilled operators – recognized and respected,” she said.

Technology updates

Some forestry equipment and software suppliers took to the Spring Meeting stage to introduce new products and services to current and potential customers.

Groupe Système Forêt introduced their new GSFLog, a time clock tool for forestry and road machinery. Gaby Dubuc presented the system, noting it replaces a paper log book, wirelessly transferring machine activity data, including accelerometer data and GPS positioning, to the office. It also allows the office to send updates to operators.

Forsite’s Maurice Leblanc shared how the company’s individual tree species identifier has been used at commercial scale with customer case studies in Ontario and the U.S. South. The tool uses machine learning to interpret LiDAR data, verified by photo interpretation.

Francis Landry with A.L.P.A. Equipment gave us a look at the brand-new 63,000 square-foot Landrich production facility in Eel River Crossing, N.B. The facility’s new manufacturing and assembly line has state-of-the-art tools to increase production of their purpose-built track harvesters. As the Atlantic Canadian dealer for Ponsse, Landry also shared an overview of Ponsse’s R&D projects, noting their goal is to simplify technology to improve new or mid-tier operators faster.

Jim O’Halloran with John Deere and Allain Santerre with Brandt Tractor spoke on the latest introduction of Intelligent Boom Control (IBC) for John Deere’s tracked harvesters. Early customer feedback found the IBC was an easy adoption to simplify operation of boom, and to reduce operator fatigue.

Weiler Forestry’s Dirk Neilsen gave an overview of the company’s 17 new models they’ve introduced since purchasing CAT Forestry in 2019. Another 17 models are on the way, he said. Among the new models is the new H157 tracked harvester, which replaces the CAT501 as a low-impact, small foot-print machine. With equipment offerings spanning the full range of forestry machines, the company recently hit the 1,000-machine milestone since the CAT takeover.

Outstanding contractors

CWF executive director Peter Robichaud announced the latest winners of the Outstanding Forestry Contractor of the Year. For the trucking award, Aurèle Mallais & Fils Ltée took home the prize. The logger award went to Noble Resources in Newfoundland.

Learn more about the award here. cwfcof.org/Outstanding-Forestry-Contractor

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