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Stacked logs. Photo: Stock Image

B.C. forest employers struggle to find workers

With an industry that has an ageing workforce and a lack of young applicants, the future of B.C forestry remains uncertain.

By Felicia Chiappetta , in City , on February 20, 2022

B.C. government programs that are pushing older workers out of the forest industry and creating difficult new requirements for young ones are adding more uncertainty to its future, says industry experts.

Introduced a mere three months apart, the new mandatory entry-level driving test for new truckers and the ongoing incentivized-retirement program for seasoned labourers has left forest employers struggling to fill positions.

“The Bridging to Retirement Program is creating pressure on an industry that is already having difficulty finding people,” said Todd Chamberlain, general manager of the Interior Logging Association, “We need to get word out that this is a great industry to be in.”

Updated in November 2021, the Bridging to Retirement Program offers a payout of up to $75,000 to workers 55 and older whose livelihood has been affected by the province’s decision to defer harvesting of old growth trees because of public opposition. On the other end, a mandatory entry level training (MELT) program for commercial drivers makes it even more difficult for fresh faces to enter the industry.

Robin Work, general manager for Progressive Employment Services Ltd., has witnessed the burden that MELT puts on logging truckers. His company connects qualified individuals with potential employment.

“We’re finding employers are having a real tough time finding people, which is rare,” said Work, “Training requirements have increased substantially. The MELT program has created another barrier for getting new drivers into the logging truck industries.”

The MELT program costs approximately $15,400 with a total of 140 hours of training that drivers need to complete in order to battle terrain and weather; compared to its previous cost of $5,000 with zero mandatory hours for road-test training.

Logging activity in Nanaimo, B.C. Photo: Stock Images

It’s not always clear that young people would be willing to invest that much early into their careers, say those in the industry.

“The younger generation, a lot of them, don’t want to work in the woods or in the resource sector, so it’s a bit of a challenge recruiting younger people,” Bob Brash said, executive director of the Truck Loggers Association.

Brash acknowledges that MELT is definitely a barrier to entry for young workers, but it’s more difficult to say for sure that the Bridging to Retirement Program will open up opportunities for them because of the uncertainty about how much trees the government will allow to be harvested in the future.

“Well, it depends,” Brash said. “If the government reduces the allowable annual cut, from all their various decisions and initiatives that they’re doing, like old- growth protection, then there’s no new jobs created.”

The allowable annual cut is the amount of trees allowed to be harvested within a forest area. It has been decreasing over time due to the mountain pine-beetle epidemic and forest fires.

Brash said that if the allowable annual cut were to stay the same and retired workers took their pay cut through the retirement program, then it could open opportunities for young people. But if the allowable annual cut decreases, even if workers retire, there won’t be new jobs to fill.

Chamberlain tries to remain optimistic about the future of the forest sector, given the dampened outlook that the media portrays. He says that there’s still opportunity for young people, especially those who like working outdoors.

“One good thing that the industry has been good at is adapting. Contractors and suppliers have come up with new and innovative ways to access timber that would have normally been dangerous to harvest,” Chamberlain says.

Besides that, the production of wood pellets, a new renewable source for electricity, has kept independent sawmills thriving throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether companies invest in these new harvesting techniques and wood products is highly dependent on upcoming government decisions.

“We’re also developing new programs that will support forestry workers and communities over the next three years, and will be announcing these soon,” said an email the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

Chamberlain hopes that happens.

“The industry has challenges and will continue to have challenges. It’s not a sunset industry, but there’s always opportunity for young people,” said Chamberlain, “It’s hard work, the hours are long, but I think people would enjoy the rewards.”