You might be aware of the looming skills gap in British Columbia, with tens of thousands of jobs expected to go unfilled in the coming years as companies in all sectors are unable to find people with the skills and training they need. Well, in the forestry industry, that skills shortage is not just looming, it’s already here.

Like many industries, forestry is projecting to lose their most experienced workers as the baby boomers continue to retire, but forestry has also had to watch much of their younger talent migrating east to work in the oil and gas industry, where many of the same skills are in demand. Even as this has been happening, enrolment in college and university programs that traditionally feed the forestry industry has declined. “We’re in about year six of proactively trying to manage this skill shortage,” says Doug Routledge, VP Forestry at the Council of Forest Industries. “It’s in our lap right now.”

“Jobs in forestry have become increasingly modern and technologically advanced”

Forestry is a sunrise industry

In a world of 50 dollar oil however, prospects on the patch are dimmer, while the forestry industry is only growing more robust. “This is a sunrise industry,” says Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada President Arnold Bercov. “We’ll never run out of trees, if we’re careful. Forestry at its heart is about forest management. And well managed forests absorb carbon, they keep watersheds clean, they provide recreational opportunities, they mitigate climate change. There’s nothing better for this planet than a healthy forest.”

For today’s youth, the growing job opportunities in the forestry industry provide a tangible way to get involved in the proactive care of Canada’s most important natural resource. But, while it is still possible to work your way up in the field from an entry level job, the biggest career opportunities in the industry require education and training, be it through a university or an apprenticeship program.

Beyond hewers of wood

“Jobs in forestry have become increasingly modern and technologically advanced,” says Al Caputo, Human Resources Manager, Operations at West Fraser Timber. “The average forestry worker of the future, and even of today, looks very different, and it’s important that we recruit and foster the development of that skilled workforce.” Beyond the traditional drawers of water and hewers of wood, there is a growing need for highly educated professionals. And not just biologists and ecologists either.

“We need computer programmers and we need computer technicians,” says Routledge. “We need skilled tradespeople that know how to machine high tech replacement parts. We hire lawyers; we hire accountants; we hire nurses and doctors. The number of professions that our industry encompasses is just immense.”

Finding people for these jobs is a challenge that must begin with education and empowerment. “We need to focus on training young people and particularly training aboriginal youth,” says Bercov. “More and more of the employment opportunities in the forestry industry are going to rightfully belong to First Nations. We need to find different ways to train and engage the aboriginal population, and maybe that means bringing the schools to them.”

The job opportunities are there, and one way or another, we must create safe and appealing training opportunities for the next generation of forestry professionals, in urban settings, in rural areas, and in First Nations communities. The forestry industry is vital to B.C.’s economy, and the forests themselves are, not to put too fine a point on it, vital to our survival.