'Sexy sector' of forestry seeking staff with tech skills

By Yvonne O'Hara

The forestry sector is thriving, but a lack of tech-savvy workers is hampering growth. Yvonne O'Hara investigates.

Forestry is the new ''sexy'' sector.

Forestry workers are more likely to work in a multimillion-dollar, air-conditioned computerised cab on haulage or processing equipment with access to advanced and sophisticated technologies than on the ground as they did a few years ago.

However, Forest Industry Contractors Association (FICA) president Ross Davis said while the industry was growing rapidly, a shortage of people with the right technology skills was affecting forestry contractors nationwide, including those in Otago and Southland.

Mr Davis said the industry and Government must re-examine how school leavers were being prepared for employment and work and improve funding and access to technology skills training to meet the demand.

''Students and their parents don't yet understand that technology skills are now the key to getting good forestry jobs,'' Mr Davis said.

''We need early risers and hard workers. For highly skilled young people, the jobs are there now to run multimillion-dollar forest harvesting machines.''

The Southern Wood Council's Brent Apthorp says working in forestry is quite different from in the past.

''Now, agriculture [including forestry] is quite a sexy subject because of robotics and sensing equipment,'' Mr Apthorp said.

''Forestry now requires quite a different skill set than it used to. That is why folk with a technology background have become attractive to the forestry industry.''

Balclutha contractor Mike Hurring has nine crews, and struggles to find enough young people to fill vacancies. He often gets calls from other contractors who are also short of skilled workers.

He has invested in simulator equipment to train his and other contractors' staff to operate the multimillion-dollar machinery on forestry work sites. But other businesses cannot afford to spare staff for training and once he trains his own staff, they are often poached.

He looked at applying for funding from Work and Income to run short courses but would only have been given it if he took on the people they supplied.

''They sent guys who failed drug tests. They have to be drug-free [to work in the forestry industry].

''We do random drug tests all the time because of the industry standards.''

When he advertised for staff, he would get people replying from all over the world, he said.

''All with immigration dramas, so I just push delete.''

Part of the problem was the perception the industry wanted people in the lower end of the labour market, Mr Davis said.

''Our industry has changed quite dramatically in the past five years and we are looking for operators with computer literacy,'' he said.

''About 80% of staff are in air-conditioned cabs, driving multimillion-dollar machinery.''

The industry had increased its emphasis on health and safety, he said.

The Christchurch rebuild added to the shortage as it had ''sucked up a lot of guys who operate similar machinery''.

Also, forestry planted 25 years ago was maturing and coming on-stream, which also put pressure on operators.

Schools needed to have a rethink, as careers advisers tended to suggest pupils go to university, rather than promoting sectors such as forestry, Mr Davis said, a sentiment with which Mr Hurring agreed.

Mr Davis said the shortage of skilled workers would eventually stifle the amount of logs that could be harvested.

Some of his best employees were those who had not done well academically but were intelligent, he said.

Men and women starting in the industry could earn between $20 and $25 an hour and ''if they show any promise they will be pumped up pretty quickly''.

- Otago Daily Times

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