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Clarky's Comment - Forest Worker Shortages – A Handbrake on Industry Growth Potential

A recent report compiled from a survey of forestry contractors and service firms puts some metrics around the challenges ahead of the forestry sector, if it is to respond to both increased harvest and the call for more tree planting. The survey and report were put together by NZ Forest Owners Association (NZFOA) with funding support from the Forest Growers Levy Trust. The survey captured responses from 174 businesses collectively employing nearly 7,000 people. The report is easy to read and can be viewed here.

Some key findings that will not surprise those of us trying to get forests harvested and trees planted right now:

  1. A third of our workforce is over 50 years old.
  2. 89% of forest owners/managers report difficulty in recruiting contractors to carry out all the work they have ready to do, with 52% rating that as “major difficulty”.
  3. Almost two thirds of respondents report difficulty in recruiting skilled staff.
  4. Staff turnover is high, averaging 21% in the past 12 months.
  5. Departing staff report better pay, reduced working hours and enticement by competitors as the 3 top reasons for leaving, with 40% of those leaving moving to a competitor, mostly for better pay.
  6. Wages are rising, with the average increase being 10.2% over the past year.
  7. The majority of respondents are forecasting the staff shortages to get worse over the next 3 years.
  8. 62% of respondents consider access to migrants to fill (or partly fill) worker shortages as important.
  9. The survey identifies frustrations with industry training not serving the sector well.

Forestry is not the only sector facing skills shortages in New Zealand. Dairy is reported to have more than 3,000 immigrant workers in dairy sheds across New Zealand, and a recent loosening of the immigration restrictions for construction workers are symptoms of a wider skills shortage. The Forestry and Careers Committee of NZFOA has several initiatives that will help address the awareness of forestry as a career choice. These include financial support for the Primary Industry Capability Alliance (PICA), Whenua Kura https://whenuakura.co.nz/, the ASB MAGS Food and Fibre Careers Experience Centre https://www.mags.school.nz/asb-mags-farm/, University of Canterbury, a new Logging Training School in Gisborne, and a forestry training and careers web portal . These initiatives may help in three to five years but the shortages are here and now. We are aware that Te Uru Rakau (Forestry New Zealand) has industry skills training on its radar and is fully engaged with NZFOA on how best to address the shortages.

In Clarky’s view this issue will need a concerted, well-led and multi-faceted approach; one that maximises the potential to motivate and train young New Zealanders to choose rewarding careers in forestry but recognises the crucial role of migrant workers as part of the solution. It will cost money. But unless it is addressed the cost of the lost harvest and planting opportunity will be much greater.