The Truck Loggers Association (TLA) recently commissioned a public opinion poll to better understand public sentiment towards the forest industry – and some of the findings are concerning.
Most notable is the “disconnect” between the perceived future of the industry (most are optimistic) and the perceived existence of forestry jobs (most believe there is a shortage of jobs). Our concern lies in the fact that at a time when our members and other forest sector employers are growing and looking to fill thousands of positions, prospective workers in our coastal communities are looking elsewhere.
The predominant view that the future of the industry is positive is well founded. The US housing market is recovering as evidenced by lumber prices being up more than 50 per cent from a year ago and 100 per cent from when the U.S. housing market crashed in 2009. Further, housing permits for future construction have climbed to the highest level in almost five years, pointing to a sustained rebound.
The confidential poll, ‘Attitudes on Forestry’, was prepared for the TLA by Innovative Research Group and involved 409 randomly-selected coastal residents 18 years or older. Of concern, notwithstanding the positive views of the industry’s future, is that 51 per cent of the respondents indicated there is a shortage of jobs compared to 14 per cent who said there is a shortage of workers. Further, 50 per cent said that they wouldn’t recommend a career in forestry to a family member or friend.
So what’s going on, and why do we care?
I believe there are two key reasons for the “disconnect”. First, although the industry’s resurgence has been building for months, it follows the longest and most severe housing collapse since the Second World War. Suffice to say, it takes time to make people believers again when you’ve been down for so long. Second, critics of the industry continue to promote negative impressions of our forest practices. This in turn has incorrectly convinced many of our youth that the sector is not environmentally sound or sufficiently high tech to be a priority career choice.
What’s ironic about these findings is that they come at a time when the world is increasingly focused on reducing its carbon footprint and recognizes that forest-based materials have a significant advantage over materials that are non-renewable and/or require large amounts of fossil fuel energy to manufacture (e.g., plastic, steel and concrete). Further, efforts to maximize the value and use of forest fibre abound, such as advanced engineered wood products for tall-wood buildings, biomass to produce power and heat and biomass-derived replacements for chemicals and plastics.
As such, our industry is increasingly viewed as the high tech sustainable industry of the future and the related job opportunities are broad and vast. Just ask Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who noted that over the next decade 25,000 job openings are anticipated due to retirements and economic growth alone. Or Premier Clark and NDP leader Adrian Dix, who both acknowledged the sector’s workforce challenges last week at the Council of Forest Industries annual meeting and stated their respective commitment to help foster the required skill sets.
But, what to do in the short term? Many believe a comprehensive branding campaign is required to position the forest sector as a world-leading high-tech industry, a job creator and source of improving government revenues – all true attributes, but expensive to execute. A more immediate solution may lie in some of the grass roots strategies initiated by the TLA, along with Western Forest Products and TimberWest, involving support for the Alberni School District’s project-based learning program whereby students experience forest practices in the woods every day as part of their regular curriculum. Students learn core high school requirements through hands-on learning activities in the outdoors, including maintaining a 10-hectare Christmas tree farm, offering tours of a woodlot they maintain and explaining techniques that they undertake.
The program is so successful that a similar one was launched this year in Campbell River, and we’re currently working with BCIT in the hopes they will give the students credit for their efforts if they go on to enroll in the institute. Bottom line; firsthand experience in the forest means increased interest and awareness in the many job opportunities present in the local community.
Although these programs are starting to pay off, we need to do a lot more to get the word out – to educators, to employment and guidance counsellors, and to parents – that the sector has bounced back, the long-term outlook is extraordinary and that good jobs are available in communities up and down the B.C. coast. And by “we”, I mean the forest industry, our local and provincial governments and the media. We owe it to our kids, our communities and our province.
Bottom line, if you love the outdoors, if you’re interested in the latest high-tech gear, if you’re passionate about advancing environmental initiatives – then there’s a place for you in forestry.
Dwight Yochim, RPF
Executive Director, TLA