Capacity Summit: Investments in safety along with improving workers’ and supervisors’ wages eases workforce pressure for 2007.

Improving wages to workers and supervisors has eased some of the workforce problems facing B.C.’s tree planting industry according to this summer’s silviculture sector capacity summit held in Kamloops. Contractors representing more than half of the volume of trees planted this year found it easier in 2007 to recruit new workers with the number of applications rising in contrast to the last three years of declining interest from the labour market.

But with more than 260-million trees planted this year and another increase planned for 2008 worker retention is still a problem as the industry remains uncertain as to how many experienced workers and managers will come back. Few contractors conducted exit polls and no industry-wide field surveys were conducted similar to the two done since 2004. Some contractors expect a good return rate based on their subjective sense that workers were happy this year with their earnings and the sector in general. Others rejected this optimism saying one season doesn’t make a trend and workers are more likely to come and go depending on the fluctuations of the rest of the Canadian labour market. They added that the apparent labour stability in the sector may be illusory therefore prudence should dictate a conservative approach to next year’s commitments. All contractors agreed that a set-back in wages due to a depressed market would erode any positive workforce gains realized from the recovering bid prices of 2007.

On the positive side of the ledger contractors reported that wages seemed to have reached that threshold where workers took advantage of the incentives of piece work. As a result some reported production figures above their anticipation. On the not-so-positive side contractors described a younger workforce constantly requiring more supervision and safety training. In particular this demographic lacks mechanical and related practical skills creating pressure to improve driving and machine operating skills. Addressing this condition, which may worsen if retention problems become chronic, should be a major safety focus for the industry contractors said.

The conversation on tree planter blogs seems to have dried up. Since the talk was often negative some contractors have read the diminished internet griping as a signal the sector is happier. Others noted that the digital generation may have just shifted to Facebook sites and is continuing the tree planting community of practice there instead.

John Betts
Executive Director
Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association
Phone: 250-229-4380