Tree-planting, a staple of the summer job market for students, is disappearing

OTTAWA — A summer job for students that has become as iconic as the loon and beaver may be going the way of the $2 bill.

Summer tree-planting jobs that helped put thousands of Canadian students through school for decades are declining because of a slack U.S. housing market and pine beetle damage to West Coast forests.

That means fewer jobs for students this summer and lower pay for those who do manage to find work among the mosquitoes, pine and spruce. While economists predict a recovery in the overall summer job market this year, tree planters will feel the pinch in shorter contracts, lower prices, and fewer jobs. Ben Hendry, a 22-year-old Ottawa resident, travels to British Columbia every spring to plant trees.

“It’s always been a quick way to pay for stuff and save some money,” Hendry said.

This year, though, he’s not sure how much work he’ll find.

Companies in British Columbia intend to plant only 170 million seedlings this year, down 100 million from 2007, according to estimates by the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association. Ontario expects to plant 50 million, down from 75 million last year.

Fewer trees mean fewer jobs.

Brinkman and Associates, a company that runs contracts in Ontario and B.C., said it will hire just two thirds of its regular seasonal workforce this year because of the downturn.

“Tree planting is the kind of business where you always need to bring in new people,” Brinkman’s John Lawrence said. “But the people at the core of the profession are really finding it difficult.”

The work has a steep learning curve, and many planters don’t make much money until their second or third season. After that, a skilled worker can earn as much as $10,000 in two months.

The industry peaked in 2007 when Canada was supplying lumber for the overheated U.S. housing market. Since the real estate collapse south of the border, Canadian forest companies have cut fewer trees, resulting in fewer contracts for reforestation.

The industry was further damaged by the devastation to West Coast forests caused by the mountain pine beetle, said John Betts, director of the Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association.

“We’re not going to see a real quick recovery,” Betts said. “You have to grow seedlings before planting, so it will be at least two years after this, more than likely, that things are not looking great for us.”

With prospects like that, Hendry isn’t sure the job is a good investment for first-time tree planters.

“There’s definitely going to be a point where it’s not worth it for people to come who are new,” Hendry said.

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