Living off the land

Hundreds of thousands of resource jobs will be up for grabs. The challenge: finding willing and able workers

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Vesa Moilanen / Reuters

Vesa Moilanen / Reuters

By the end of 2009, it looked as though the sun had set on Canada’s once-mighty forestry industry—a gutted workforce, hundreds of empty mills scattered across the country—and in Prince George, B.C., Terry Tate was training pink-slipped mill workers for jobs in other sectors. “We lost, just in the north alone, a dozen operations,” says Tate, project coordinator for the Northern Skills Training program. The industry shed 100,000 people across the country and closed 400 mills between 2003 and 2009.

Today, Tate is helping forestry companies fill jobs that are going begging. “We did a very good job of convincing everyone that the industry is dying and, consequently, forestry programs got cut. People started focusing on high tech,” Tate says. “Now we’re trying to convince people we’re not dead.”

As the U.S. housing market, which makes up a crucial 65 per cent of exports, picks up, forestry companies are hiring again. It’s a revival mirrored across Canada’s once-troubled resource sector. Despite a modest downturn currently, miners predict $140 billion of new mining investment in the next five years in Canada. And last year was the largest harvest on record for Canada’s agriculture industry, worth an estimated $53.4 billion, up seven per cent from 2011—growth that’s expected to continue as demand in emerging markets rises. All that is expected to lead to healthy job growth.

The resource industries have long been important employers: 153,000 people work in forestry, 235,000 in mining and 2.1 million in agriculture and food. And while prospects for growth look bright, companies also face an onslaught of retiring baby boomers. That massive demographic shift will leave hundreds of thousands of jobs up for grabs—jobs that, thanks to dramatic changes in technology, will require an increasingly skilled workforce.

Industry groups have launched PR campaigns aimed at convincing young workers to think about careers in forestry, mining or agriculture. But selling the “good news story,” in the words of one industry executive, to a shrinking labour pool that’s skeptical of what these traditional industries have to offer, is an ongoing challenge.

“I’ve gone into schools and spoken to students, and you see the glassy eyes,” says Tate: “ ‘Yeah right, forestry. My dad was there. He got laid off. Why would I go there?’ ” The answer for many job-seekers is that logging operations, mills and wood-product manufacturers expect to hire between 40,000 and 120,000 workers by 2020, depending on the growth of the U.S. and Canadian economies. Over that period, one-third, or 53,000 forestry workers, are expected to retire.

The industry in Canada, still home to some of the world’s biggest forestry firms and worth $57 billion, plans to generate $20 billion more in revenue by 2020. Half the growth is expected to come from new export markets, including China and Asia, and half from new products, such as turning wood fibre into fuel, fabric and windshield fluid. More than 30 per cent of companies surveyed for a 2011 forest-products report said they expected to bring new products online in the next five years, changing the kinds of jobs in demand.

“There is a whole continuum of jobs required, from the truck driver, the person helping to sweep the floor [in a mill] and maintain the building, right through to the chemical engineers and scientists developing those new fibres and fabrics,” says David Lindsay, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada. Companies also need people who can speak Chinese or Urdu to sell the products abroad, he says, and are already reporting labour shortages for foresters, engineers and senior technicians to manage the lands and direct the harvest of trees.

Still, many of the most in-demand jobs at mills remain in the skilled trades, including electricians, pipefitters and millwrights. While forestry companies operate in 12 of the 13 provinces and territories, Lindsay says the need for workers is particularly high in B.C. and Alberta, where companies compete for workers against other resource sectors.

Canfor Corporation, which shut its Rustad sawmill in Prince George, B.C., at the height of the downturn in 2009, is now hiring again at its pulp mills—at the rate of one or two jobs every week (the company’s production was up 22 per cent in 2012 from 2011). But the jobs inside those mills are changing. “Companies are investing more in technology, so the equipment is more computerized, more efficient, faster,” Tate says.

“People are sitting in control rooms now. They have multiple computer screens and TV screens,” says Larry Hughes, senior vice-president at West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. In that company’s most modern mills, the logs are scanned as they come in, and a software program decides what to make out of that log. It’s technology that reduces waste, increases profits and requires a lot less grunt work—and more computer literacy. “We are finding it a challenge getting skilled employees in the right places,” Hughes says. He also worries about replacing high-level managers: Most at West Fraser are in their mid- to late 50s, among a group where early 60s is a typical retirement age.

As the industry’s traditional labour pool shrinks, the Forest Products Sector Council is urging companies to hire more women, immigrants and Aboriginals. But recruiting a younger generation that witnessed the demise of so many jobs and would “rather make video games” is tough, notes Hughes. Plus, forestry jobs pay less, on average, than mining or oil and gas. Average weekly earnings in May were $1,055 in forestry, compared to $1,792 in mining.

In return for lower pay, says Hughes, workers get a better lifestyle. Josh Sephton, a 24-year-old millwright apprentice in Fort St. John, B.C., agrees. “With oil and gas, you’ll end up in the bush in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I get to come home every day and see my wife and kid.”

Before the recession, mining companies were fighting for new workers. Commodity prices were booming, and times were good. “Mining, engineering and technology students were making very good salaries. You could not find an experienced geoscientist or mining engineer or even a skilled tradesperson,” says Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council. Then commodity prices took a hit in 2009, cutting into the workforce. Though the industry has since rebounded, it has struggled recently with a dip in commodity prices, and there are fewer jobs than at the height of the boom.

Nevertheless, the Mining Association of Canada is forecasting $140 billion worth of new mining investments over the next five years. Over that time, 25 per cent of the workforce will be eligible to retire, threatening the mining sector with an estimated labour shortage of between 116,800 and 145,000 workers—more than half the current workforce.

“Not many kids say, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a miner,’ ” Montpellier admits. Dated perceptions persist, gleaned from movies and TV, of “the dark, dirty, dangerous mining sector. And the reality is, it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. Of the 66 jobs his organization tracks, “very few of them go underground, and those that do are operating very sophisticated, multi-million-dollar equipment and the use of robotics.” Along with massive drills and GPS-controlled haul trucks, mines will require “much more highly educated, highly qualified people.”

The demand for engineers and geo-scientists will improve by 2015, predicts Ferri Hassani, Webster Chair of Mining at McGill University and a mining engineering professor. He adds he’s never had a student complain he or she had been trained for a sunset industry.

Miners also face increasing regulatory hurdles, including environmental assessments. Sean Junor is the manager of workforce planning and talent acquisition for uranium miner Cameco Corp. in Saskatchewan. He predicts a jump in demand for people in all regulatory fields, from health and safety to environmental stewardship, plus community and stakeholder relations. “There will be no projects that move forward without significant community involvement,” he says.

Yet, as in forestry, some of the biggest labour holes will be within the skilled trades. Among the positions with the greatest forecasted hiring requirements are truck drivers, heavy-equipment operators, millwrights and industrial mechanics, welders and machine operators—about 47,000 people will need to fill those roles in the next 10 years. It is by far the industry’s largest labour gap, and one for which “there will simply not be enough new talent” to fill, according to a Human Resources Council report. Montpellier stresses that mining jobs pay better than many other sectors, including forestry, two-thirds above the national average of $914.68 weekly.

“Feeding the nation” is both an old cliché and a passion for Kerry Froese. “It’s in my blood, it’s what I am, it’s what I do,” says the chicken farmer from Abbotsford, B.C., who’s seen his family’s farm grow since the 1970s and wants to hand it off to his own kids one day. Froese is head of the Canadian Young Farmers’ Forum, a national network that promotes the farming life and helps young businesses grow. (He’s 36 in an industry where the average age is 54.) In contrast to the image of the poor farmer, struggling to get by as weather, pests and market prices eat into his profit, he says farming is a “decent, profitable industry—if you know your bottom line.”

David Sparling agrees. “It’s an industry that has a very bright future,” says the business professor and chair of Agri-Food Innovation and Regulation at the University of Western Ontario. “Increasing populations, changing consumption and income [around the world]—there’s increasing demand that looks like it’s going to go on for at least a couple of decades.” That’s good news for the one in eight Canadians employed in agriculture and food (62 per cent of whom are self-employed), ranging from truck drivers and mechanics to veterinarians and salespeople.

Though the number of farms in the country fell 10 per cent between 2006 and 2011 to about 200,000, according to Statistics Canada, the average farm size actually grew six per cent, to 778 hectares. Sparling says the push toward larger farms is good—not only because it increases economies of scale, but it coincides with boosts in investment in new technologies and innovations, which, he says, define the modern farm. “They now have an app to help people identify pests in the field. They use drones to fly over land and look for pests.” Tractors run on GPS to avoid double-spraying fields, he says. “The whole science of agriculture has become more complex.” He points to Stanton Farms in Ontario, a 2,000-head cattle farm that has its own genetics lab.

That technology will not only increase demand for people who design, build and install these systems, but also “the knowledge workers who analyze market information: when to put farm products on the market, what markets in the world are best,” Sparling says.

While large operations increasingly dominate the landscape, boutique farms and organic producers are also driving job growth, finding success by choosing in-demand products and marketing locally. (The number of those farms grew four per cent between 2006-11, to 3,713).

Still, great advances in technology have yet to replace some of the dirty jobs of agriculture, the “back-breaking stuff,” as Sparling puts it, such as picking fruit. “The younger generation doesn’t want to do some of these hard jobs,” Froese says. “It is becoming an issue to get some of that hand labour.”

There’s already a 10 per cent labour shortage on farms across the nation, notes Mervin Wiseman, chairman of the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council. His organization expects the figure to grow by two per cent a year, and notes seasonal labour is particularly hard to find. It doesn’t help that those jobs pay much less than others in the resource sector, including mills and mining. (While average family income on farms was $127,000 in 2012, average wages for non-family employees was $41,500 in 2006.) And seasonal jobs leave workers with only half a year’s salary, driving demand for foreign labourers. Temporary foreign workers—there were more than 338,000 in 2012—are crucial to horticulture and pork production, notes the human resource council’s executive director, Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst. She says some food-processing plants that rely wholly on foreign workers are reporting “extremely severe” labour shortages.

Still, the challenges do little to dampen Froese’s enthusiasm. “Everybody has to eat,” he says. “It’s a great time to be in agriculture in Canada.”

Others might add: and in forestry and mining, too. And Canadians with the right skills can have their pick of the jobs on offer.

Greatest mining hiring needs to 2023

Top 10 mining jobs with the greatest number of projected employment openings:

1. Heavy equipment operators (except crane) 6,205

2. Underground production and development miners 5,475

3. Truck drivers 5,125

4. Construction millwrights and industrial mechanics 5,045

5. Labourers in mineral and metal processing 3,195

6. Welders and related machine operators 3,070

7. Heavy-duty equipment mechanics 2,800

8. Machine operators, mineral and metal processing 2,680

9. Industrial electricians 2,375

10. Material handlers 1,765

Careers in forestry where demand will exceed supply, 2011-20

1. Forestry technologists and technicians

2. Chainsaw and skidder operators

3. Silviculture and forestry workers

4. Logging machinery operators

5. Nursery and greenhouse operators and managers

6. Supervisors, forest products processing

7. Supervisors, logging and forestry