WOSS—In the shadow of a steep canyon in the mountains near this remote Vancouver Island hamlet, a hulking grapple yarder sits idle, the victim of a deep overnight freeze that has temporarily disabled its hydraulic systems.
But hook tender Tavis Menzies, 33, remains in motion — sharpening a chain saw here, trimming a felled tree there, splicing a cable with co-worker Robert Glass on the tailgate of a Western Forest Products truck while waiting for a mechanic to get the heavy equipment back in operation.
“It’s a stable job and income; it’s a great fit for me,” said Menzies, who is no stranger to steep slopes and cold temperatures after spending several years as a professional freestyle skier.
A graduate of the inaugural Western Forest Products’ Logging Fundamentals Training course in late 2012, Menzies has shifted from his former nomadic life of fishing by summer and skiing with the Swiss-based Faction Ski Collective by winter, to a full-time forestry career.
And he is a welcome addition to a workforce which is rapidly aging out of the industry.
“We’re very happy with the people we’ve hired from that first group,” said Robert Trettenero, woods foreman for WFP’s Englewood Division. “It’s becoming a real necessity. The workforce is changing; there’s not much to draw from.”
WFP is currently accepting applications for its fifth Logging Fundamentals Training course, which will begin in April in Woss and which is the first of three such courses planned for 2014. The brainchild of WFP Englewood operations manager Randy Boas and former general foreman Vince Devlin, the course introduces candidates to a career in the industry through a combination of classroom training and hands-on training at an instructional site near WFP’s Woss office.
Funded by WFP with a contribution by Island Coastal Economic Trust (ICET), the program kicked off in the fall of 2012 as an answer to the shortage of entry-level employees in the industry.
The employee crunch was, in part, self-inflicted. Formerly, new workers entered as chokermen, and eventually moved up to landing man and other jobs on the worksite. But the advent of the grapple-yarder made the chokerman obsolete.
“There’s a gap because of changes in the industry,” said Boas. “Chokerman was the training ground for basic fundamentals. Without that, now landing man is the next level, and that requires a higher level of ability.”
To plug the gap, Boas, Devlin and WFP’s human resources department conceived of a training program that would provide the basic groundwork of preparation for entering the workforce through a standardized curriculum.
They requested a digital version of WorkSafe BC’s Grapple Yarder and Supersnorkel Handbook and, essentially rewrote it into a textbook.
“WorkSafe BC wanted to review what we’d done,” said Boas. “When we were finished and they looked it over, they wanted to put their logo on it. So I guess we did something right.”
The first class of six trainees — culled from a pool of nearly 100 applicants — took place in Woss in the fall of 2012. It proved to be a rousing success for both WFP and the trainees.
“I had no experience. I knew nothing about logging when I came in,” said Menzies. “It was a seven-week course, and one week before it ended I was offered a job.”
Scott Rufus, a 24-year-old from Alert Bay, was part of the second training class, held in the spring of 2013. Also a newcomer to logging, he had a similar experience upon completion of the training.
“I didn’t expect a job the day after I finished the course,” said Rufus. “But it ended on a Friday, and I started work the next Monday.”
The course is not a comprehensive program designed to vault workers into top-level jobs with tickets. Rather, it is a basic fundamentals course, heavy on safety and conditioning, and designed only to prepare the trainee to step into a cut block and contribute.
“We’re just trying to get them to a point where they can get teamed with an experienced logger and learn on the job,” said Boas. “We’re trying to shorten the learning curve so they can hit the ground running.”
That said, the program is also fluid, and able to adapt to the needs of the industry and the potential employees. Boas said directors are currently exploring a driver’s evaluation component, and said other adjustments to the curriculum are possible in the future.
“We constantly talk to our crews and other operations where (graduates) have been hired,” he said. “We ask, ‘What did you like about these guys and what would you like to see them come in with?’ We also ask the kids, ‘Is there something else you feel you need to get from this?’”
For now, what the trainees are getting is jobs. Twenty of the 24 students who began the first four courses have found work in the industry. Boas said only two washed out of the program, while two others went back to their previous jobs.
That may be in part due to the stringent requirements of the program. Applying for one of the coveted six spots in each session is akin to applying for the job itself, with experience, background checks and a daunting interview process involving Boas, Devlin and WFP human-resources developer Lisa House all involved.
“We want to attract the right people,” Boas said. “We look for a good work ethic.”
Menzies said he was likely aided by his first aid certification and a ticket for ambulance/EMT work.
“I was lucky,” he said. “But it’s probably the best way to get into logging if you’re new.”
For WFP and other logging operators, the long-term goal is a stable workforce bolstered with fresh, incoming employees committed to the long term. If Alert Bay’s Rufus is any indication, this training program may be filling the bill.
“I was just talking to one of these other guys about that the other day,” Rufus said when asked if he planned to make a career of logging. “I told him I’d give it five years. He said, ‘If you’re here in five years, you’ll be here in 30.’
“So I guess I’ll be here in 30 years,” he added with a laugh.