Silviculture sector sees worker shortage

The B.C. silviculture industry — best known for tree planting — has seen a trend in the past two years towards a younger and more inexperienced workforce, show survey results released Wednesday at the opening day of the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association annual convention.

The findings appear to support contractors’ concerns it has been increasingly difficulty in the past two years to attract and retain workers. “Not enough people want to be in the bush,” said Celtic Reforestation owner Dave Wilson following the presentation of the findings, which came as no surprise to him.

“Prices (for planting trees) are not there,” he noted. “You can get a job in town and make just as much, or nearly as much as planting. It’s a real struggle.”

Survey results showed that the silviculture sector is competing with the construction and oil and gas sectors, and even retail. Wilson said his company — headquartered in Prince George — is on a serious recruitment drive and has a focus on improving living conditions for workers. The company is also trying to negotiate price increases, although not with much luck.

The silviculture sector — which carries out planting for companies that hold logging rights and also for the province — are caught in an economic squeeze. Last year, the silviculture sector made an unsuccessful bid for forest companies to pony up the money to pay for tree planting camp costs. Currently, planters pay the daily cost themselves.

Chris Akehurst, one of the partners in Akehurst and Giltrap Reforestation, said usually their company sees a five per cent no-show rate. Last year, that jumped to 20 per cent. In the past decade there has been little need to advertise, but now they are, he said. On the plus side there are still young people who want to be tree planters, they’re just not experienced, said Akehurst, whose company works in the Southern Interior area. On the logging side, they are having a hard time attracting anyone, he noted.

The survey — produced by consultant Jordan Tesluk, a tree-planter himself — showed that rookies made up 30 per cent of the silviculture workforce in 2006, almost double from a similar survey in 2004.

There’s also been a drop in veteran workers, with four to 10 years experience, to 32 per cent in 2006 from 56 per cent two years before. The loss of experienced workers is an important issue because the older, more experienced workers also tend to be those that also brush, space and thin replanted timber stands, and also carry out firefighting work, noted Tesluk.

The veteran workers are also considered more reliable and productive, and often mentor rookie workers, he said. The survey showed that satisfaction with earnings and accommodation is improving, but there are other financial considerations, including being certain there is the promised amount of work and that you can put in full days.

There’s also a concern that planters are working at peak capacity and could be suffering burnout, said Tesluk.

On the positive side, despite the trend towards younger and more inexperienced workers, safety attitudes are improving, he added.