"It kind of gets in your blood," is how long-time forestry worker and now union boss Jeff Bromley describes the pull of B.C.'s forest industry for generations of families who have followed each other into jobs at local mills or at harvesting sites across the province.
Bromley is a chairperson with the United Steelworkers, which represents around 12,000 forest industry workers in B.C. He began working at the sawmill in Elko in 1994 at the age of 25, an hour's drive from Kimberley where he grew up.
Bromley spoke as part of a panel on Friday at the annual convention of B.C. Council of Forest Industries (COFI), which discussed how to attract a new generation of workers to the sector, which directly employs 50,000 workers but is facing uncertainty as the province overhauls regulatory policies and civil unrest continues over logging old-growth trees.
"We have an image problem," said Bromely. "And that's something we have to deal with."
The panel, which included the heads of post-secondary institutions and a recent forestry graduate, said working against the sector were not just negative headlines in the media, but a lack of understanding over how the industry is moving toward modernity by incorporating new technologies and Indigenous land stewardship, as well as simpler things such as how workers can get to job sites due to the price of fuel, and work-life balance for new hires.
"From a young person's standpoint, how do we bridge that gap?" asked Bromley, who has two sons, one of whom is working in the film industry, while the other is considering working at a mill this summer.
Schools that provide programs to train new workers for the industry, such as the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry and the B.C. Institute of Technology's School of Construction and the Environment, say they are rapidly trying to pivot to prepare students for the future of forestry.
Robert Kozak, dean of the Faculty of Forests at UBC, said it had introduced two new programs, an urban forestry program and science technology program, which focus on making innovative and renewable products from wood.
Also coming for 2023 is a new bachelor program for Indigenous land stewardship, which will prepare students to work with Indigenous governments and industry, he said.
The programs follow years of work from the province to overhaul its forest policies, which recently included better engagement and sharing revenues with First Nations across B.C., in whose territories logging takes place.
Kozak was challenged with a question posed to the panel about UBC seeming to place more emphasis on the conservation portion of its offerings than forestry operations.
"The reality is that most students want natural resources, conservation," said Kozak.
"We are not, with intent, moving away from forest operations."
'Really excited for where the industry is going'
Georgina Magnus, one of UBC's recent forestry conservation graduates, is now back at the university for a masters program with the aim of becoming a professional forester.
The 24-year-old grew up in Steveston and admitted she knew very little about B.C.'s forests. But she didn't enjoy studying psychology, she said, so she decided to switch programs — and never looked back.
"I wanted something unique that would bring me outside and it just spiraled as I entered into it and I fell more and more in love with the science," she said.
She said her goal is to deeply understand the balance between harvesting timber as a resource and protecting ecosystems.
Magnus also said she's trying to develop her knowledge of ecology, sustainable management, and Indigenous rights and values related to forestry as she enters the workforce.
She's also hopeful about how the face of the industry is changing, as 55 per cent of UBC's 1,500 forestry students are female.
"Honestly I'm really excited for where the industry is going to go, where I'm going to be in five or 10 years. I really just want to be a part of it," she said.
"Forestry isn't just about money, it's managing land for our future generations and protecting it."