Forestry industry post COVID-19 busier than ever

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COVID-19 recovery training numbers tracking well in the New Zealand forestry sector, with more trainees than ever carving out a career in the industry

With a significant increase in the number of Kiwis enrolling in forestry training programmes over the past 12 months and more than 5,400 people needed to fill roles in the industry over the next five years, the forestry sector is busier than ever.

Industry training organisation Competenz has reported a 314% increase in enrolments in the past 12 months, which CEO Fiona Kingsford believes is in part due to the government’s post-COVID-19 funding boost – a shot in the arm that has seen fees removed from all apprenticeships and other financial support directed to employers.

Through the TTAF (Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund), all apprenticeships and traineeships are free from July 2020 to December 2022 for currently enrolled and new apprentices. The Fund also covers Levels 3 to 7 NZ Certificates traineeships and micro-credentials in a number of sectors including forestry.

“Additionally, there is the government’s apprenticeship boost, which provides relief for our employers and protects the jobs of workers in the early stages of their apprenticeships. It also allows businesses to take on new apprentices to help combat an ongoing skills shortage and post-COVID unemployment. The government has shown a real commitment to getting New Zealand industry training back on track to lead our post-COVID economic recovery,” says Ms Kingsford.

William Oldham owns Proforest Services in Dunedin. He has 20 staff, swelling to 35 in the winter and takes on new trainees at the end of every planting season. William says the government assistance has helped him expand his business.

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of trainees in our business. Training is expensive and before the government stepped in, we were very choosy about who we invested in due to the cost. But now we can invest in training everyone who would like it. “Often people come to work for just a pruning or planting season, but now they will stick around and we’ll train them up, usually through a Competenz apprenticeship. And we’re so busy – we could do with another 10 people!”

Further north, Amy and Toby Satherley’s company ATS Logging in Hawke’s Bay has also seen a jump in the number of people wanting to work in forestry and enter into apprenticeship programmes. Currently Amy has 26 staff, four of whom are doing Competenz apprenticeships while others are working towards national certificates.

“There are quite a few young people who come into the industry with little or no experience and no tickets. But nowadays there’s a push to have some qualifications against your name and the government funding has definitely helped encourage people into training. Amy says the past 18 months have been hard in the forestry industry, with volatile export markets and COVID-19. “Export prices were dropping before COVID and we’ve been on productivity restrictions, which have only just come off but the outlook now is generally more positive.”

The financial support that is available for both learners and employers will reach those who need to retrain in a new industry due to Covid-19, and school leavers who may face an uncertain future in the job market, according to Ms Kingsford.

“There will be a swathe of school leavers entering the job market at the end of this year and they have just been given a real boost. An apprentice wage subsidy enables more young people to undertake on-the-job training, get paid and gain nationally recognised qualifications, providing tangible opportunities that may not have been available otherwise, which is great news for the forestry industry,” she says.

Another South Island-based forestry business, Johnson Forestry Services in Mosgiel, has 40 staff on its books and according to owner Steve Johnson, “at least 10” trainees. While Steve agrees there’s been a lift in the numbers of apprentices in the industry, he says recruiting people is still a challenge.

“There is so much work out there we can’t keep up. We need another 10 people at least and they are hard to find. We are recruiting and training people who are new to the industry and also retraining people who have been displaced through Covid. We have three Competenz assessors who regularly visit our business to support those in training and they are booked out for months – they can’t keep up! The industry is booming. The challenge now is to recruit even more people.”