Treeplanter shortages cause for concern in Western Canada

June 27, 2012

By: Brett Hanson

There is growing concern from Western Canada’s silviculture industry over the steady decline of planters in the last several years. Up until now the industry has been able to cope with the decline, but as planting volumes begin to return to pre-downturn levels, many are wondering if there will be enough planters in the future.

John Betts of the Western Silviculture Contractors Association (WSCA) says the group has been watching this phenomenon closely.

"The WSCA has just completed an estimate of what the silviculture workforce might be. Based on the empirical evidence we could muster, we think there are as many as 9000 silviculture workers in BC, 6000 of them are involved in tree planting," Betts said. "What is concerning us right now is the ability to recruit and retain reliable seasonal workers."

 John Betts

Betts said recently conducted exit poles of tree planters shows that about half of the workers are making less than $250 dollars a day. While this is still a decent wage for mostly university students he notes that it is at the bottom of the scale for most resource sectors.

"We are worrying about our ability to get workers to come in and stay at two or three months of labour. About 25% of the industry right now is reporting that they have experienced worker shortages," Betts said.

Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd.’s Judi Tetro thinks there are many reasons for the growing trend of fewer planters applying for positions and not returning year after year. She cites issues ranging from wages to rising tuition costs and the increased communication with their friends at home due to cell coverage in remote areas and other social media.

"Twenty years ago we had as many employees as we wanted and people stuck around for a very long time," Tetro said. "Now they don’t do that. The average planter is only around for a couple of years and then move on to something else."

 Judi Tetro

Tetro notes that planters used to make substantially more money than they do today, partially because they don’t stay long enough to gain the necessary experience to earn more.

"The cost of living has doubled and tuition has skyrocketed. What people are earning tree planting is not nearly what it used to be, that is probably the major issue with why we are not attracting as many people."

Tetro theorizes that although planters can still make good money relative to their peers, high tuition costs mean they will still have to get loans to pay for school, so the draw to work hard in rough conditions isn’t what it used to be.

"I think that a lot of people prefer to have a nice easy summer at home if they are just going to have to get a loan anyway, they’ll just get a bigger loan. When I planted 20 years ago I could cover all my school costs and never had a loan," Tetro said.

"The other thing that I think is very different now is that we used to go tree planting and we would say goodbye to everyone and come back a few months later. We weren’t really in contact with people at all; we were off on our own personal adventure. Now, in camp and out west in Alberta and B.C. there is cell phone coverage everywhere, people can text and email on a regular basis with their friends. People can see what they are missing back home, and I think that has a great deal to do with why people don’t stick around as long."

Betts notes that the piece rate for seedlings has been in steady decline for the last ten years and that is something that will have to change to draw workers back to the industry.

"The critical part of the issue is if we go into next year with 240 million seedlings and the price per tree hasn’t come up will we have enough labour to do the job? Workers are being forced to work harder to make the same amount of money as previous years," Betts said. "There is a sense that the industry is peaking in terms of its work capacity and we have to come up with a strategy to make sure we can pay workers as well or better as they have been in the past. We have to find out whether we can squeeze any more work out of these individuals, I don’t think we can. We are trying to capitalize on what the industry has been doing right and try to market that."

Tetro agrees that the big key is money, which is in short supply in silviculture in the current climate.

"We have seen a trend in certain places where it is possible for the client to pay more; they have understood the concern about shortages of planters and have been paying out more money. However it’s just not possible to have that everywhere in the current state of affairs. Some clients just do not have 3 cents more per tree to go to planters."

There is definite concern in the industry of not having enough people to plant what will be needed in the future," Tetro said. "Everyone is scraping by and has been for a few years, if the trend keeps going there will be a point when we can’t scrape by." ◊


Orrin Stewart said on Thu 19th Jul, 2012 at 14:07:

I think it would really help the industry if the price per tree was reflected in the quality standards and land prep. If you're looking for 80% quality 8 cents a tree is fine. if you're looking for 99% quality, then prices will have to be stepped up. As far as land prep goes. It shouldn't count as prepped if it was done more than 4 years ago. That being said, more needs to be done to assess the worth of the land itself. You can't expect perfect density when there just isn't any mineral soil at all. Not to mention the qualifications of the checkers. measuring spacing with your boot isn't adequate.

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