Age-Class Distribution of Forest Sector Workforce Raises Concerns
Posted: August 10, 2020
By Augusta Lipscombe
Allan Foley grew up shadowing his forester father through the woods of Parry Sound. His heroes played on the Canadian television series The Forest Rangers. Foley and all his friends knew what they wanted to be. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Unit Forester with the Ministry of Natural Resources was the job,” he said.
In 1983, after three years studying at the University of Toronto and one year as an exchange student at the University of British Columbia, Foley graduated in a forestry class of 53. Across Ontario, about 100 students graduated from the registered professional forester (RPF) program; however, the supply far surpassed the demand. “Two-thirds of my classmates couldn’t get into forestry,” said Foley. He stayed the course.
In the ‘90s, responsibility for forest planning, renewal, and management shifted from the provincial government to industry, with the Ministry of Natural Resources taking on an enforcement role. Foley’s dream government job disappeared. Today, he is President and COO of First Resource Management Group Inc. (FRMG), whose 32 staff provides forest management services on over 9 million hectares of Ontario’s public forests.
In 2020 the forest sector faces the opposite problem of the 1980s: a shortage of trained forest professionals. A healthy forest contains a good distribution of old, middle aged and young trees. Ontario today has many aging foresters and some young ones, but few in between, Foley said. FRMG struggles to fill its openings; Foley said it feels like they are constantly recruiting.
One problem is the expectations of young graduates. “They want to live comfortably. They’re empowered by technology, and they have different social values,” observed Foley. “They don’t want to stay overnight in camps, they want live music and air conditioning. But the thing is, we are there and nobody knows it! Young people don’t know how modern we really are in forestry.”
And then there’s that pesky negative perception of the forestry sector.
In response to the growing misconception of foresters as axe-wielding environment destroyers, schools are distancing themselves from the sector by dropping program offerings and changing degree names, effectively “greening” themselves. As a result, training becomes generalized and schools no longer produce experienced foresters with the practical skills and understanding so desperately needed by industry.
One industry quick fix is to fast track new employees. “What was once a 20-year career journey has become five years,” says Foley. But career maturity is not something which can be fast-tracked. Nonetheless, Foley is hopeful. “I’m beginning to see the pendulum swing back,” he said. For Foley, answers lie in engaging northern Ontario’s First Nations communities and the increasing number of New Canadians relocating to the region.
Forestry needs to work on its messaging too, and emphasize that forestry in Canada is a technologically advanced, environmentally sustainable, and ‘cool’ profession, he adds. “We aren’t wood choppers. We are a modern, state-of-the-art industry,” said Foley. Given that forests fix carbon and cool the planet, he adds, “foresters are climate change warriors.”
A Look into the Future of Forestry
Reacting to the growing labour shortage in Ontario’s forest sector, Forests Ontario held its second annual Student Session on February 13, 2020. The session, scheduleda day before Forest Ontario’s Annual Conference in Alliston, Ont., aimed to connect students with prospective employers, provide insight and direction on how to pursue employment opportunities, and improve employer understanding of what is important to the emerging workforce.
Student participants answered a survey to gauge their views of the forest sector. One-third of respondents lacked any previous sector-related employment experience; still, a clear majority were willing to obtain further education/accreditation and take short-term and contract opportunities to kickstart their careers. A whopping 85% said they were willing to relocate to rural and/or northern Ontario (even if only temporarily).
Among respondents, the most influential attributes when applying for a job were work-centric, with the ability to advance within the organization being the clear determinant.
The survey results paint a positive picture for the future of forestry: an eager and ambitious workforce, like young and healthy trees, are reaching skyward.