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Do Forest and Lumber Workers Have a Sustainable Future?

Just as forests go through cycles -- old trees die and new ones grow -- so do the jobs that keep forests alive and thriving. During the recent economic slump, the forest and lumber industry was hit hard. And that could be scary news if you're interested in entering the field.

But experts say a downturn is actually a good time to consider a job in this field.

Many new jobs will be created. In fact, forest workers say new jobs will come about that haven't been invented yet. Some of today's new jobs are ecological. Some are technical or research-oriented. Employment also continues in traditional jobs, such as planting trees, logging and firefighting.

There will also be many people retiring in the near future, opening opportunities in all sectors.

"While the job loss in the forest products industry has been stark and significant, there is a bright future, as the industry evolves and responds to changing economic conditions," says Keith Lancastle. He's the executive director with a forestry council.

In fact, he says many new jobs are being created, especially jobs related to environmental awareness, the sustainable management of forests and renewability.

"There is a lack of awareness of the breadth of employment opportunities available in the sector, as well as a lack of understanding as to how sustainable and innovative the forest sector has become," adds Karen Hébert. She's a project manager for a forestry council.

"This industry, I would say more than any other, has a variety of employment opportunities, whether you want to work outside or inside and everything in between," adds Lancastle.

While new jobs are growing, economic factors have painted a grim picture. "The downfall of the housing industry has impacted lumber exports," says Lancastle. "Newsprint demand is at an all-time low...."

These factors have caused fewer students to enroll in forestry programs, says forester Daniel Gautreau. He works with an organization that focuses on forest recruitment.

"Because more people are reluctant to enter this field, post-secondary programs are having difficulty attracting students," he says. "It has come to the point that some of these programs are now closed, and others are contemplating doing the same as not enough students are filling up the seats."

However, with a looming influx of retirements there will be lots of opportunities and not enough workers to meet the demand, he says.

Research shows that over the next 10 years, thousands of forestry professionals will retire. This will open up a range of career opportunities for urban planners, technologists, engineers, biologists, equipment operators and researchers.

Also when the industry starts rebounding, Gautreau predicts a demand for other traditional jobs, such as highly skilled loggers and truckers, who will be needed to help rebuild the sector.

"Loggers are at the very beginning of the value chain of all forest products," he explains. "No matter what type of product the industry creates with the wood, there will always be a need for someone to harvest that wood. Highly skilled loggers and truckers are essential for the well-being of the forest industry and will be key components of the economic recovery of the industry."

Skills required

Because the types of jobs available in forestry are so broad -- from tree planting to highly specialized research -- it is difficult to pinpoint the skills required to enter this field, says Gautreau.

But one thing is essential, and that's a genuine interest in the environment, forests or nature, he says. "People who naturally frequent the woods on a regular basis to participate in their favorite activity, such as camping, bird watching, hunting, fishing or canoeing, for example, are usually inclined to be interested in forests and the field of forestry."

Aside from a passion for the outdoors, there are certain skills required, depending on the job. A logger, for example, requires technical and computer skills and hand-eye co-ordination.

"Unless you're cutting on a steep slope, you're sitting in a cab with a computer screen showing you where your saw's cutting head is," says Bruce Lippke. He's the director of the rural technology initiative at the University of Washington.

The demand for workers with post-secondary education, skilled trades, computer skills or sales and marketing knowledge is also high. This shortage is likely to get worse in the future as the forest industry introduces more complex manufacturing processes.

Kelley Duffield works with the forestry college at the University of Washington. She believes a high school diploma is necessary for new forest management jobs. Some research and management jobs also require people to learn technical skills.

"I can see students with some technical training working with persons with higher levels of expertise," Duffield says. "They'll be outdoors measuring soil or moisture, replanting native plants, [and] introducing certain types of wildlife, for example."

Get experience

For those interested in the forest and lumber industry, experts suggest first getting your feet wet. That means asking a national forestry organization about opportunities for job shadowing, riding along with a forester, hydrologist or crew boss, and getting a taste of what it's like to do forestry work. Most states have a service office.

Most experts suggest volunteering. Agencies doing forest restoration work, such as tree planting, often have volunteer opportunities. You might sow seeds or work on wetland restoration or erosion control programs. Or you might volunteer to pull ivy out of trees to help the trees survive, put food boxes in the forest or pull weeds out of wetlands. Nature conservancies worldwide have projects in which anyone can participate.

Many big cities need volunteers to help maintain forested parks. The International Mountain Biking Association, for example, has a volunteer section that works on trails. Most cities have an urban forester who needs volunteers to help with tree planting, tree care and other projects.

You could also apprentice with a logging crew. Ask about a forestry extension service at a university. Look for agencies or contractors that are doing environmental monitoring and see if you can work on a survey crew. It helps to have an interest in botany or zoology.

What jobs are there?

Career opportunities in the forest and lumber industry are vast, from firefighting to forest management. Forest management used to be about harvesting trees for profit. But now it's moving towards other goals. These goals include preserving old growth forests, protecting the habitat of endangered species, restoring wetlands or making an area available for recreation.

"The legacy of timber harvesting will shift to some other objective," Duffield says. "And that is where I see a great deal of opportunity for young people."

Jobs are often found in two categories: research and applied activities. A research activity could involve going into the woods and counting birds, nests or bird calls, for example. Then the person would enter the data into a computer. Applied activities occur in restoration work. That means taking an area, such as a wetland that has been heavily impacted by humans, and restoring it to a more naturally functioning ecological system.

As Duffield points out, the new jobs in forestry aren't as highly paid as jobs in some other fields. However, they can be rewarding. You get to work in the great outdoors. And you are doing work that makes the world a better place.

"We really need bright young minds to help us solve some of the environmental problems we are facing," she says.


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