Clarky's Comment - March

Forestry – a great career choice – but skill shortages have arrived

All primary sectors in New Zealand have identified skills shortages in recent years. Most have done something about it, and the forestry sector must too.

In some regions at PF Olsen we have blocks to harvest and no contractors available. The contractors tell us it is not leaders or access to capital that is preventing expansion of their operations or starting new crews, but lack of skilled machine operators to fill the crew slots. The maturing mid-1990s plantings are mostly on hill country requiring cable systems. The situation will get worse as the harvest expands over the next decade. A strong move to mechanisation means more jobs than operators are available. It takes over a year to become highly skilled at driving a hauler or a digger equipped with a mechanised felling or log-making head. Unlike picking fruit or even operating a dairy shed, these are not jobs that can be quickly filled by immigrant labour.

To its credit Toi Ohomai (the merged Waiariki and Bay of Plenty polytechs) has commenced entry-level excavator / felling head training courses in conjunction with some basic skills NZQA units. It has installed four high-tech simulators that get trainees work-ready for the real thing once they join a logging crew. I anticipate demand for these courses will be high.

Students at Toi Ohomai

The problem in the planting / silviculture space is different but also acute. With the planting season nearly upon us and taking a zero-tolerance to drug impairment, PF Olsen has not yet been able to secure all the labour it will need for this winter’s planting season. The government is keen to see more land planted in trees to assist with both meeting our Paris Accord commitments and with freshwater quality. But who will plant these trees?

Planting trees properly can be learned in a few days. Although it pays well once individuals are fit for the task, this is tough physical work in a tough outdoors environment during our coldest, wettest winter months. Should we be surprised that our young kiwis with other options choose not do this type of work?

What is needed is an immigrant labour scheme specifically designed for forestry. This would see a core of workers stay on permanently or return frequently who will act as the trainers and gain skills in pruning and chainsaw thinning as well as planting. New individuals would be brought in to deal with the peak winter planting workload.

The forestry sector is large and diverse. It offers many career advancement options for our school leavers. The public perception of forestry must be adjusted away from yesterday’s chainsaw wielding bushman exposed to getting hurt on the job to reflect the reality of forestry today – a range of high-tech, highly skilled and safe jobs that pay well.