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Forestry training and careers update

Alan Reid, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2019.

A year ago we noted in a Tree Grower article that there was a renewed focus on forestry training and careers, along with the re-emerging direct government support for forestry. There was timely support from the Forest Grower Levy Trust for various training initiatives and programmes related to forestry training.

Forestry is the third largest primary industry export earner but training and career promotion has little public prominence. Those involved in the sector may be surprised that forestry as a career is as low as it is in general public awareness and all too often we hear comments expressing surprise that forestry is a prospective career. However, there is a strong demand for graduates from forestry courses as forest businesses aim to boost their work-forces.

Buoyant timber prices, the government programme and incentives for forestry development, along with the carbon price, all continue to raise the profile of forestry and are behind the demand for skilled workforce personnel across the range of silvicultural, harvesting and associated jobs. The immediate problems of skill shortages, workforce turnover and demands on training and trainer assessment are not easily solved. These reflect the competition for skilled workforce across New Zealand as well as the pressure on the forestry training system as it tries to keep pace with the expansion in the sector.

Attracting people to work in forestry

A year on, there are continued efforts to attract people into the industry to ease the short-term labour and skill shortages and promote forestry as a career path development. Some of these are as listed below:

  • Continued Forest Grower Levy Trust funding to support key training and careers-oriented initiatives, including −
    • $270,000 allocated in the current funding period for training and careers support. This includes funding for school careers, such as funding support for the inclusion of forestry as part of a farm teaching programme at Mount Albert Grammar School
    • On-line information resources, in particular the forestry careers website www.forestrycareers.nz
    • Co-ordinating with other organisations such as the Forest Industry Contractors Association, Forest Industry Safety Council and Competenz which manages the Industry Training Organisation programmes.
  • Initiatives by forestry businesses to find ways of solving the continuing shortages of, and attrition in, skilled forestry workforce personnel, especially among the workforces of silvicultural contractors.
  • Forestry study scholarships offered by the government, companies and organisations, such as the wood councils.
  • Te Uru Rakau working to develop a long-term strategy to deal with the skills shortfall and gathering updated survey information from the industry organisations to help understanding where training efforts could be focused
    • Publishing on the Te Uru Rakau website data on the makeup of the workforce across the primary industries between 2002 and 2016 which show a decline in numbers in the forestry workforce but increase in the primary industry support services
    • The results of survey of the commercial forestry sector by MPI on the future needs for skills and labour requirements showing that increased planting, harvesting of mature and near-mature plantations, retirement of personnel, competition with other industries are all putting pressure on expanded workforces into the near future.

Servicing the demand

The overall picture is one of catch-up mode as the sector scrambles to service the short-term demand across the range of skills coupled with effort to cater for the future needs. This is the picture across the broad forestry industry, so what are the implications for small-scale forest growers?

Small-scale growers grow trees for a variety of reasons such as diversification of land use, direct forestry interest, species choice, investment, landscape and shelter and watershed or soil management. They include the small-scale foresters and members of the NZFFA.

The current information on ownership suggests that there are about 14,500 owners who own woodlots which are under 200 hectares. The NZFFA, with just under 2,000 current members represents a relatively small proportion of these owners. Although the total area of these is not precise it is likely to represent a significant area of the total New Zealand forestry estate.

Need for diversity

This diversity means that these owners would probably want an equally diverse range of advice and direct assistance from trained persons. Previously we suggested that the small-scale grower interest is likely to be in the provision of short courses and training on a variety of management and machine-use tasks, health and safety, tax, business and forestry investment. Also relevant is training which spans farm and forestry skills-development, the role of indigenous forest and other species types and their applications in farm and woodlot management.

After the last summer there may also be rekindled interest in fire management, especially among those affected, even peripherally, in fire-prone regions. This suggests the need for specialists and extension professionals who can provide these services and, in all likelihood, those who have sound knowledge at specific regional levels.

Extension services

During the era of government-supported forestry training, specialist roles which directly assisted farm foresters and small-scale growers were part of the mainstream forestry programmes. The NZFFA was well supported through its formative period by the extension services in the Forest Service and the passage of the Forestry Encouragement Act 1962 which provided for loans to farmers. The innovators in the NZFFA, such as Neil and Rose Barr among others, had a positive and constructive relationship with government extension officials of the time. The Forest Research Institute’s research work also supported the effort all within the mainstream forestry programmes of the time.

The NZFFA was branching out into a fresh understanding about the role of trees on farm landscapes with a variety of commercial and non-commercial purposes in mind. It is arguable that progress could have been far more difficult without the trained forestry and scientific staff already established under the government career structure.

A further development is the government now proposing changes to the way the Industry Training Organisation system operates. This reform of vocational education has important implications for the plantation forestry industry training system, including for small- scale forest owners.

Specific needs

The Forest Owners Association along with the NZFFA, on behalf of the plantation industry, have made a submission on the current changes proposed. They note in particular that, while supporting reform of the system, including assisting ease labour shortages and providing flexibility in the skills and training process, there is a need for a clear and specifically resourced forestry training system handling the specific requirements in the sector. It also aims to ensure that there will be regionally focussed training campuses.

The submission noted that −

Smallholdings or woodlots are a significant component of the forest estate. A proportion of these are owned or managed by NZFFA members. These may be commercial woodlots as part of a farm property, separate wholly forestry woodlots and some are under Forest Right arrangements with separate investors. These forests also include specialist roles such as stock shelter systems, mixed species and indigenous forest systems. In general, similar services to larger scale forests are in demand including the skills in establishment, tending and harvesting operations but because of the smaller holdings and seasonal demands, the work lacks continuity and security for the crews and demands greater mobility from contractors.

... the forestry industry requires its own well governed, well managed Forest Industry Skills Body carrying out functions which include working with local and regional farm forestry and small woodlot interest groups, Landcare groups and others who operate at the farm scale and have an interest in both mainstream forestry skills and services and specialist forest extension services, including scope for short courses on safety, and forest investment.

In the more general context of rural skills development it has been concerning to see the demise of the agricultural training institutions, in particular the Taratahi campus. While there are specific and different reasons for the closure of the campus, the loss reduces the provision of rural skills training in topics common to both farming and forestry and potentially available to farm foresters.

Conclusion

There are numerous forestry training and careers initiatives under way to try and meet the shortage of skills and people in the industry and meet future demand. Small-scale forest owners, including farm forestry people have a stake in this process because the future array of trained people will need to include those who can service the diverse needs of the small-scale grower who, collectively, are a significant portion of the New Zealand forest estate.

Changes to the industrial training organisations should include provision for sustained rural skills development with attention to the mix of skills common to forestry and agriculture. We are unlikely to re-create the government funded forestry training systems of the past but their positive attributes, such as the extension programmes, coupled with modern web-based information could well be a consideration in meeting the diverse requirements of small-scale growers.

Alan Reid is one of the two NZFFA members of the levy- funded Training and Careers Committee.

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