In May last year, I decided to take a break from the sawfiling trade (and by extension the sawmilling industry), as I had found that my passion had waned some over the last few months and my heart was simply not in it anymore. As such, I explored an opportunity to try something totally different and try my hand with the coal industry.
Over the next nine months I learned that my initial impressions of a relationship between saw filing and working in a coal wash plant were wrong. I thought my skills as a sawfiler would be irrelevant, and I would learn an entirely new set of skills.
While there was a lot of new information and lingo to learn, I was surprised to find that my scrutinous sawfiler eye was quite necessary. Measurements and samples required great accuracy (maybe not down to .0001”, but there was not a lot of room for error) as it all greatly impacted the product and therefore price. If it was not on spec … you can draw your own conclusions. My new job very much reminded me of ensuring tight deviations and on-spec board sizes with the goal being to get the highest grade of board possible as that yielded the top dollar and kept the doors open. Perhaps I was a bit naïve to overlook the similarities, but they encouraged me nonetheless and I felt more at home.
I’ve spent most of my working life in the sawmill industry – about 13 years, which is a drop in the bucket compared with some of you, I know – so I had been feeling a little out of my element in the coal industry. And having to start at the bottom of a new industry, acquire new skills, etc., was a bit of an ego check for me. Despite all the amazing people I got to know, and all the new skills I obtained, I felt that ultimately the coal industry was not for me. Fortunately, a previous contact from my time as a sawfiler reached out to me to see if I was interested in a sales and service position with their company.
Quick side note/life lesson: Be mindful of how you deal with people in your day-to-day life, you never know who you might make an impression on and where that might lead!
This new offer appealed to me, as I found that I missed the sights and sounds of the wood industry where I felt more at home. The new job had me travelling to a wide variety of wood processing facilities with companies and in towns I had never thought I would have had the time or cause to visit. The new sales role was challenging given my lack of experience beyond the purchasing side of things as a head filer.
The service side played more to my strengths as a sawfiler – although I found I still had much to learn there too. I thoroughly enjoyed troubleshooting issues in machine centers, installations of our product, etc. It was great to be back in the mills again, especially when I was asked for my opinion on sawfiling matters. As much as I enjoyed the challenge of sales, the time spent away from my family proved to be a challenge that I was not willing to push aside or negotiate.
I feel very blessed to be back in the filing room, contributing to the continued success and starting the learning process over again. (The new mill I am at is a carbide mill – I was a stellite boy … maybe the subject of a future article/debate?) I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who can endure the demands of the coal industry, as well as those who make personal sacrifices in the sales industry. It is not just about handing out donuts and sales packets! Those guys often work late into the night or take calls during the weekend to satisfy the customer. I will not think lightly of either position anymore. I am however glad to have gone “there and back again”.
Josh Penner is a sawfiler with Canfor in Chetwynd, B.C.
The article is part of our 2019 #FileWeek coverage. Read more here.
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