The shortage of experienced tree planters across B.C. has put the province’s spring planting season behind schedule in some regions prompting the WSCA to call for an extension of the reforestation program which typically ends in late June.

In a recent letter to the province’s forest companies and BC Timber Sales the WSCA asked foresters to refrain from canceling contracts and fining contractors struggling to maintain production deadlines. Excepting grossly incompetent planting firms, the WSCA argued that this year’s tree planter shortage was beyond the control of individual contractors. The association also warned that punishing legitimate tree planting contractors in an already distressed forestry sector might simply make matters worse by putting some competent firms out of business.

BCTS replied to the proposal saying it would give advice to its regional offices around the silviculture implications of planting some seedlings later in the spring season. But in the end it stated it would be up to the discretion of the individual BCTS business offices as to what strategies they would undertake.

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Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association

31 May 2006

Memo to: to BC silviculture foresters

From: John Betts, WSCA Executive Director

Re: Extending the spring 2006 cold storage planting season

Judging from contractor field reports this spring it is apparent that many foresters overseeing tree planting projects may not be aware that the silviculture sector is experiencing a province-wide shortage of experienced workers. The outcome of this capacity problem is that many planting projects across B.C., to varying degrees, are behind in meeting their production targets this spring.

I am sending this memo because of reports that company and BCTS planting project managers are in some cases resorting to penalties and the canceling of projects as a remedy to production delays. Given the provincial nature of the worker shortage and its origins this simplistic approach may be wrong-headed and actually only succeed in making matters worse in both the short and the long term. I assume that those project managers behaving this way are unaware of the larger situation.

Not withstanding the possibility of gross incompetence on the part of some poor performers, the industry’s capacity problem today is well beyond the ability of any individual contractor to manage or be held to account for. This is not excuse making. Nor is it intended to absolve some contractors from responsibility for some misdeeds in the market. But, frankly, the contractors themselves are not the sole architects of a decade of generally declining bid prices and workers’ wages which are the roots of the capacity problem. The other side of the market for silviculture services is also culpable. And now it looks like having successfully extracted price concessions from contractors for some time some clients are engaging in the gratuitous exercise of punishing them for the broad market failure those procurement practices were bound to produce; a capacity meltdown.

Whether you agree with this version of history or not isn’t that important actually. More relevant are the outcomes of some of the behaviours starting to occur as this season’s deadlines loom:

• Threatening contractors with fines for production delays is increasing the general desperation for recruiting workers. This is leading to crew-raiding. The main outcome of that practice is to redistribute the production problem throughout the sector and further reduce the few tenuous certainties contractors are clinging to this spring. If the labour force continues to become more fluid then reliability suffers everywhere. That winds up as a cost sooner or later for everybody.

• Actually fining contractors or canceling contracts will lead to business failures. The supply of entrepreneurial energy in this sector is not inexhaustible just as the work pool isn’t bottomless, as we are learning. If clients think having fewer contractors in the market is to their advantage then they should do the supply/demand math on that one. Service purchasers should consider what effects their actions today will have on the whole market tomorrow.

So what are the remedies? In the very short term, say starting today, extend the cold storage planting season at least another week to take the pressure off contractors struggling to meet their deadlines. Many areas of the province have benefited from generally forgiving weather this spring. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity to implement a conditional extension of the season to the benefit of the industry while only exposing stocking to a doubtful detriment.

Because we are in an extraordinary position regarding the capacity of the whole sector we recommend that foresters take a more tempered course of treatment regarding contractors who are severely behind in their production. Rather than set them on a possible road to ruin by canceling their projects, re-tender the portion they are likely to forfeit anyway. But keep them in business to lower the general level of disruption across this spring and into the future. You may need those contractors next year.

Having said all this, none of it is to imply that the forestry clients should tolerate contractors who are violating workplace regulations regarding safety and employment standards. Better to have trees wasting in reefers than workers exposed to abuse and injury. In fact I wish certain project managers were as quick to discipline shirking operators for this kind of persistent behaviour as they are to punish contractors caught in the exceptional production delay circumstances we find ourselves in this season.

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