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NZ forestry course guarantees employment as sector is short of workers

At the height of Covid-19’s 2020 global impact job losses were rife within New Zealand’s forestry and wood industry. Now the sector is faced with a lack of skilled workers and an ageing workforce. Source: Stuff NZ

The dilemma has prompted the Central North Island Wood Council to launch a unique course in Tokoroa offering young people guaranteed employment and an insight into more than 40 jobs across the sector.

It comes amid New Zealand experiencing an export and building boom. International log prices have reached historic levels and June GDP figures for the first quarter show a 6.6% increase in the construction sector.

In the hope of meeting the demand the wood council has partnered with Te Uru Rākau (New Zealand Forest Service), Forest Growers Levy Trust, the South Waikato District Council, and the South Waikato Investment Fund Trust (SWIFT) to offer a fees free program through Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology.

The six to 12 week Generation Program, which is a more comprehensive version of one that’s been run in Gisborne for three years, offers participants work experience in silviculture, harvesting and mechanisation, processing, manufacturing, technology, office management, health and safety, roading, dispatch, and transport.

Site visits, training simulators, fitness and nutrition, first aid, transportation and licencing, drug and alcohol education, and NZQA qualifications are all built in.

Once completed participants will go into paid employment with six months of pastoral care support and options to further train for up to two years to Level 4/diploma/degree level.

Central North Island Wood Council chief executive Damita Mita said the program would be of significant benefit to the industry. She said the skill shortage it’s facing was due in part to younger generations not understanding its makeup.

“Across the industry there is a shortage of skilled workers and the average age for a forester out harvesting is 50,” she said.

“The view of a lot of young people of the forestry sector is planting and cutting a tree down but there is so much more to it now, especially with the use of technology.

“It has become more skilled and more mechanised so we want young people to be coming through that, to understand that, and to be working up in terms of their qualifications.

“It doesn’t just finish here, we do a Level Two certificate and once they make a decision around what they are wanting to go into, the expectation is that they will continue their study. It’s about creating that pathway but also creating a work-ready pool of young people.”

Ms Mita said interest has exceeded expectations.

“The cohort size is supposed to be 15 but we currently have 18 enrolled and then another enrolled today so it is pretty amazing,” she said.

“Toi Ohomai said to me that it’s never had a program start with that many and for that many to actually turn up.”

South Waikato District Council economic development manager Paul Bowden said extensive groundwork had gone in leading up to the programme being offered.

“We held symposiums to talk to the industry to understand and quantify the problem and needs and one of the key things we pressed was that it isn’t like it was 40 years ago when they started work,” he said.

“The whole world view is completely different and they have to meet young people in the middle otherwise they will not get any people coming into their sector and they will die.

“I think it was well-received by the industry and [those within it] are starting to learn that they need to think more about the wellbeing of their employees. It’s not like it was where you’d just stick [workers] in the bush and give them a chainsaw and man up.”

Bowden said a particularly positive aspect of the program was working with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to get people off benefits and into work.

“A proportion of the 15 is set aside for [clients] to get them back into work. It’s great,” he said. Taupo MP and National’s social development spokesperson Louise Upston also expressed support for the program and highlighted the importance of pastoral care to keep young people in employment long term.

“When I think about He Poutama Rangatahi (HPR), which we set up in Northland five years ago, that pastoral care of making sure they are getting out of bed, exercising, food and nutrition was really important but if they don’t turn up it’s also about looking at what the reasons were and how you can resolve them,” she said.

“The whole thing of supporting people in an environment not only gives them a pathway but actually takes care of the other issues which may have been problems in the past.”

Ms Mita said the program would be run twice a year with plans to eventually also run it in Rotorua.