Forestry ‘Super Cycle’ a Long Time Coming

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Dwight Yochim (left) and Bill Markvoort at the Truck Loggers Association convention

Speakers at last week’s Truck Loggers Association Convention were optimistic about the industry’s resurgence, but say the recovery has yet to gain a foothold in B.C.

There are those who say that the independent forest sector is a sunset industry. But the overriding message at last week’s Truck Loggers Association convention in Vancouver is that a “super cycle” is on the horizon. After a decade of mixed blessings and setbacks, the convention proposed a new era of doing business in the woods.
There was a time when the forest sector was the number one industry in B.C., but things have changed. While it once accounted for 25 per cent of the province’s GDP, in 2013 the industry was down to about 11 per cent. It’s done a terrible job of managing its public image and it employs only a fraction of the men and women it did a generation ago.
But according to speakers at last week’s conference, forestry has a potentially strong future in B.C. It offers a sustainable resource, a decentralized economic engine, and rural community economic growth.
A panel of speakers that included David Elstone, senior analyst at ERA Forest Products Research, and Murray Hall of Murray Hall Consulting Ltd. said that the “super cycle” combination of high demand for lumber and shortage of supply suggests prices will go up and stay there for some time. They pointed out, however, that analysts have been heralding the coming of the super cycle for close to a year but it hasn’t materialized yet. Murray cited the stubbornness o the U.S. housing market, saying that it is recovering, but not fast enough. The U.S. jobless rates may be down, he said, but it will take more than a couple of part-time minimum-wage jobs to buy a house.
Which begs the question: Who will be working in the woods when the super cycle kicks in? A recent Truck Loggers Association study indicates that the sector will need more than 5,000 new trained employees by 2020. A shortage of skilled labour is not just an industry problem; it has long-term implications for the provincial economy.
Long-time industry watcher and former long-time TLA executive director Jim Girvan, a registered professional forester with MDT Management Decision and Technology Ltd., noted that if the industry can’t solve its workforce issues, the potential benefit to businesses, communities, and the provincial economy of an improving lumber market will be lost or significantly diluted. Girvan fears that the sector will experience unexpected demand and there won’t be any loggers to meet this demand. He’s hoping the major forestry companies are paying attention, because their business model hasn’t left much on the table for the independent loggers to either weather the lean times or train and retain young workers.
As TLA Executive Director Dwight Yochim noted, “We can’t compete with the oil and gas sector when it comes to wages.” He referred to daily flights from Comox and Campbell River to the Alberta oilfields, saying many skilled young workers have left the industry for the oil and gas sector.
In several remarks at the convention, outgoing TLA president Bill Markvoort countered that, in contrast to oil and gas, forestry should be an attractive career choice; it’s a “green” industry, and forest workers should feel good about being part of an industry based on harvesting a renewable resource.
Markvoot has played up the “quality of life” aspect of working in the forests, saying recently that the forest industry needs to engage with both the industry’s detractors and champions in a positive conversation. Many at this week’s conference commented that industry is discovering it has many potential allies, and the TLA leadership is interesting in developing these relationships.
In his presentation on industry challenges, incoming TLA president Don Banasky focused on profitability. Part of the new era of profitability means changing the industry’s self-definition of the “rough and ready” logger, he said. “I’m getting sick of calling it ‘safety.’ Let’s call it ‘risk management,’” he said, pointing to the return on investing in safe workplaces, including paying attention to building healthy relationships at home and on the job.
Things have changed in the forest industry. Now, if only that super cycle would arrive.