Forestry needs ‘sexier’ image

Public and private stakeholders in the South African forestry sector have joined forces to overcome the growing skills shortage plaguing the industry. Lloyd Phillips reports on the challenges and possible solutions.
Issue date 31 August 2007

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Stakeholders in SA’s primary forestry sector agree that a concerted effort is needed to give the sector a “sexier” image to attract urgently needed new entrants at all skills levels. This comes in the wake of an urgent Forestry Sector Skills Development Forum recently held in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. It was hosted by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) and the Forest Industries Education and Training Authority (Fieta). D elegates discussed possible reasons for the skills shortage and how to retain existing skills and encourage additional skilled people to enter the sector. O ver the past 10 years the main challenges in the primary forestry industry have been the transformation charter, forest protection issues, employment issues – particularly relating to the impact of HIV/Aids – and climate change, according to Roger Godsmark, assistant director of Forestry SA, an organisation that represents the interests of the country’s commercial timber growers.

These factors deter existing and potential primary forestry employees. “There has been a huge move by corporate forestry companies towards the outsourcing of forestry management operations,” Godsmark explained. “The skills that these corporate companies employed are then lost to the primary industry. One timber farmer has reported a 12% staff turnover every month. This has major implications for the further education and training of forestry staff. In addition, it seems that entrants to the job market at all levels no longer want to work in the primary forestry industry.” According to Godsmark, a vast majority of employees in the sector are unskilled, and often illiterate. While mechanisation in primary forestry is on the increase, the sector is still very strongly orientated towards manual labour. “Forestry is often seen as a last resort for unskilled workers. is important that the industry offers these workers the opportunity for further training and skills development so that they can become empowered.

This could act as a drawcard for potential employees.” Problems with skills development T ertiary education institutions offering this kind of training are, however, spread too thinly and many do not have enough qualified lecturers. Godsmark told Farmer’s Weekly that either tertiary training in forestry should be consolidated into fewer and more productive programmes, or standards of forestry training at some of the institutions should be checked and improved where necessary. Another problem is the dropout rate from forestry programmes at some institutions. “While first-year entrants comply with the minimum requirements to participate in my programme, students drop out either because they become discouraged with the technicalities of the programme, or they simply cannot afford to pay for their tertiary education any more. is sad because the University of Venda (UniVen) is ideally situated to cater to the large forestry regions of eastern South Africa,” explained Prof Ole Meiludie, head of UniVen’s forestry programme. M any skilled workers enticed into the primary forestry sector are not as productive as they should be due to the impact of HIV/Aids.

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Godsmark took a swipe at President Thabo Mbeki, telling forum delegates that “despite what the president thinks, Aids is a huge problem. There are areas in the forestry industry where infection rates are 100%.” At the end of the two-day forum, delegates decided that a collaborative survey was needed to determine exactly what skills shortages existed in the primary forestry sector, where they existed and to what extent. They also agreed that tertiary forestry training programmes were needed to generate generalist employees rather than specifically qualified graduates for the industry. he forum’s facilitator Peggy Khumalo, who is DWAF’s national capacity-building forestry coordinator, added that the standards of Adult Basic Education and Training, National Qualification Framework training levels, and those of other training facilities needed to be re-evaluated to get rid of fly-by-night institutions and reinforce the quality of forestry training provided by accredited facilities.

Plans to attract new people “The accredited training institutions and the commercial forestry sector must also improve their marketing of employment opportunities,” Khumalo told delegates. “We must attract these potential employees, train them well, and then retain them in the industry by offering them ongoing skills development. We need them to be proud of working in this noble industry.” Delegates also decided to establish an executive committee, chaired by DWAF and including Fieta. While the forum would meet once a year from now on, the executive committee, and any task teams that it co-opted, would in the interim follow up on targets set by the forum. According to the commercial forestry sector, from a new afforestation peak of over 40 000ha in 1991, the average net afforestation over the past 10 years has dropped to 1 776ha/year. The same average for this category over the past five years was an even lower 1 447ha/ year.

Difficulties with obtaining water-use permits from the DWAF were a major contributor to this decline, a factor which was making the primary forestry job market unattractive to new entrants. Sappi’s training manager André Boshoff told the forum that new entrants to the sector were also on the decline because of bad publicity in terms of forestry’s perceived threat to the natural environment. However he pointed out that the primary forestry sector was now increasingly conforming to sustainable practices that benefited the environment, and that these actions were bolstered by stringent legislation. DWAF accepted the role of strategic driver for developing skills within the primary forestry industry. The forum hoped that development support from the Department of Trade and Industry’s National Industry Policy Framework would significantly reduce the skills shortage in the industry.