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Council of Forest Industries - Northern Operations

Chris Lear, Forest Education Manager
Council of Forest Industries (Northern Operations)

Why Aren’t Enough Young People Choosing a Career In Forestry?

Students attend a timber cruising
workshop at a 2007 Natural Resource
Management camp in Quesnel.

For generations, British Columbia’s forest industry has been the backbone of BC’s economy, building strong communities and supporting thousands of individuals and families.  But that was when the forest industry was booming, markets were strong, our forests were healthy, and jobs were plentiful.  In times of growth and stability, young people looked at the forest industry with optimism.  It was a place where they could build a future, a place that could provide them with good paying permanent employment in the woods, in one of the many wood product manufacturing facilities located around the province, in marketing BC wood products worldwide, or in any one of the dozens of associated jobs like accountants or mechanics.  It was a time when the media headlined stories of new mills being built, jobs being created and new wood products being produced.  Local economies were booming and people moved in to fill the employment opportunities. The perception was that the industry was a ‘sunrise’ industry and as we all know, perception, especially for our youth, is ‘reality’. And so, for many young people, the forest industry was a beacon of opportunity, especially at times when other resource industries were facing difficult times.

As we all know, that perception has changed!  For the past few years at least, the perception many young people have of the forest industry is that it is a ‘sunset’ industry.  And who could blame them, given the information they have available?  Yes, they are witnesses to one of the harshest times the forest industry has ever faced in British Columbia.   We are experiencing the ‘perfect storm’, as some have coined it.  A time when the collapse of the American housing market, a high Canadian dollar, a 15% SLA duty on softwood lumber exports to the US and the devastation the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic has created an economic crisis resulting in mill closures and/or reductions and countless forest workers being laid off or let go.  At no time in recent memory has the forest industry been so crippled by so many factors all at once.

It is no wonder young people today are hesitant about a career in the forest industry.  Remember, high school students graduating this June have not known a time without the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic or forecasts that by 2013 most of all the mature pine trees in BC will succumb to the attack.  So where will the forests be, they ask?  Nor have they known a time without the Softwood Lumber Crisis and the toll that has taken and is taking on forest companies and communities around the province.  Add to that the daily media reports of how the rising Canadian dollar and failing housing markets in the US are crippling the forest industry, causing layoffs, bankruptcies and mill closures. So where will all the jobs be, they ask?

Secondary students on a
manufacturing and trades tour
learn about saw filing at
Canfor's Ft. St. John sawmill.

You see, the youth of today have not really experienced the ‘good times’ of the forest industry.  Their parents and grandparents did and they may have even heard their stories of the ‘good old days’.  But even if they have that family history, their perception is of a ‘dying’ industry whose future is very uncertain.  And this perception is not only theirs,  it is a perception that is pervasive right across the province, in schools, in coffee shops, in the media and in the homes of many forestry workers who are experiencing very difficult times.  Optimism has faded to pessimism and for many the perception of a dying industry is the new reality.

So who could blame young people today for not wanting to work in the forest industry, or enroll in college or university programs leading to a forestry career?  Everywhere they turn they see the effects of a hurting industry.  Every time they turn on the radio, TV, read a newspaper or catch a pod cast, they hear or read about another mill shutdown and more laid off forestry workers.  When was the last time they heard a good news forestry story?  Even some of the most optimistic parents, who themselves are or have been employed in the forest industry, are telling their sons and daughters that, although forestry has provided them with a great career, maybe they should consider a career in some other industry.

As Manager of Forest Education for the Council of Forest Industries, Northern Operations, I have the pleasure of working with high school students and teachers right across north-central BC.  I also have the challenge, in light of everything happening in forestry today, of providing an optimistic view of forestry, of looking forward and providing students and teachers with insight into careers that will be available to them.  Yes, today the forest industry is experiencing extreme challenges, but in the not too distant future it will need highly skilled people in forest management, wood products manufacturing, in marketing and in the myriad of associated jobs to ensure that the industry can survive and re-grow in a very globally competitive environment. 

COFI Northern Operations Forest Education Program, in partnership with school districts, COFI member companies, post-secondary institutions, hosts two career awareness programs: Natural Resource Management   and Trades and Technologies in the Forest Industry.  Both programs, run over a 2-3 day period, provide students and their teachers with an in-depth look at forestry careers and post-secondary training opportunities. The focus of both programs is to take students out of the classroom and into the forests or mills where they can interact and learn about forestry careers from those actually working in these careers today.   

In the Natural Resource Management Programs students and teachers participate in hands-on workshops as varied as wildlife management and silviculture, to harvesting and archaeology.  Each workshop, hosted by working professionals, provides the students with a snapshot of some of the activities and skills that forest professionals encounter on the job.  As well, students, through their interaction with the professionals, learn about career opportunities, working conditions, salaries, training and future prospects. 

While the Natural Resource Management Program focuses on hands-on workshops in the forest, the Trades and Technologies in the Forest Industry Program provides students the opportunity to tour various mills and interview tradespeople on the job.  Students are introduced to a variety of tradespeople such as welders, machinists, electricians, carpenters, sawfilers, plannermen, etc., each of whom spends time with the students introducing them to their trade and, as in the NRM programs, passes on valuable career information.

These programs are invaluable in helping to educate students about careers in the forest industry.  They provide first-hand knowledge of the industry to the students and allow them to see and feel what the careers are really like.  But even with these programs, the numbers of students considering a career in forestry is small- not because they are not interested in forestry, far from it, but because they have so many other options available to them – so many other options where the future may be perceived to be more stable and less risky. 

In order to really attract the next generation into forestry, a major shift in perception and reality will have to take place.  Young people will have to see the industry as turning around and providing an economic future for their families and communities.  There will have to be optimism in the air, something palpable that their parents and teachers can look to in confidence to be able to honestly encourage their sons and daughters and students to enter the forest industry.  This optimism must first come from those employed in the industry.  The optimism must be rooted in reality. The reality that the industry is at the bottom of the cycle and about to begin a recovery. The reality that it takes several years to train and educate new workers and those new professionals, technologists and tradespeople will be graduating on a rise in the cycle.  The reality that the forest worker supply pipeline is virtually empty and that many in the industry today are planning retirement in the next 5 – 10 years.

With this knowledge that the forest industry in BC is about to change for the better, we will continue to work with young people across BC, showing them the careers available and encouraging them to enroll in post-secondary institutions so that they will be ready to fill the many careers that will become available when the current forest industry workers retire.  This will certainly be the next major challenge to face the forest industry, and we all need to work together to help young people see the future opportunities.

We also need to support young people who are choosing to enter post-secondary schools in forestry, business and trades programs with a goal of working in the forest industry tomorrow.  To this end, the Council of Forest Industries offers ten $1000 COF Convention Legacy scholarships to students across the interior of BC entering a field of study leading to a career in the forest industry at any of the ten interior colleges and universities.

For more information on scholarships, please contact Chris Lear or visit our forest education website at:  www.forest-information.info

 

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