On Nov. 30, 2018 Conifex Timber Inc. announced that it intended to temporarily reduce operating capacity at its Fort St. James, British Columbia sawmill starting January 1, 2019, due primarily to log costs and current lumber market conditions. At the time this curtailment was expected to continue until about mid-2019, resulting in an estimated 25% reduction in Conifex’s British Columbia lumber production during such period and a temporary workforce reduction of approximately 70 employees.
On May 1, 2019, Conifex announced that commencing May 6, 2019, it would be temporarily curtailing operations at its Fort St. James sawmill for four weeks. The reason given was continued high log costs and lumber market conditions.
In June of 2019 it was announced that Conifex intended to sell its Fort St. James operation to Hampton Lumber for around $39 million. Conifex said it doesn't expect to resume normal operations before finalizing the sale "due to continued uncertain market conditions." In a statement, the head of the sawmill company said there is "too little sawlog supply" to maintain operations as it has in the B.C. Interior. Hampton Lumber made it clear their intention was to dismantle the existing sawmill and rebuild a new facility.
In July Progressive Employment Services Limited entered into a Labour Market Partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. The Project’s objective was to provide one (1) job fair and one (1) local labour market community information event to address current labour market issues affecting the regional forestry sector.
The Job Fair was held in Fort St. James on July 31st and featured 37 prospective employers. The event was attended by 204 community members. On August 7th a Community Information Session convened and was attended by representatives from Conifex, Hampton Lumber, Ministry of Forests, WorkBC, Community Futures, and the District of Fort St James. Approximately 110 community members participated in the event.
During both the Job Fair and Community Information Session we worked to gather information from employers, community members, USW 1-2017, and Conifex to address the current labour market issues affecting Fort St. James. We sought ideas and solutions that were seen as viable and valuable by these stakeholders. To do so we provided survey sheets for employers and community members to provide input and we also conducted informal information gathering with members of each stakeholder group.
The employer surveys were intended to gather information about the types of skills employers were looking for in an employee/candidate. The community member surveys asked the following questions:
- What can be done to improve the stability of the labour market in Fort St. James?
- How can we ensure that the people of Fort St. James are best prepared to manage these changes in our labour market?
- What needs to be done to keep families and jobs in Fort St. James?
- What types of training programs are needed in our community?
- Employers are looking for employees who possess a variety of traits. The following is a list summarized from sample results. A number in brackets denotes multiple responses: Physical fitness/ability (4), computer/technical skills (3), Class 1, Drivers Licence (2), Class 2A Drivers Licence (2), Heavy Equipment Operator (2), Occupational First Aid Level 3 (2), Red Seal Certification (2), Office Administration, experience in industrial environments, High School diploma, WHMIS, Education Assistant Certificate, Early Childhood Education Certificate, carpentry, plumbing, clean Driver’s Abstract, communication skills, customer service skills.
- When asked the following question, “What can be done to improve the stability of the labour market in Fort St. James?”, responses were focused around two themes: 1) Economic Diversification, and 2) increased access to training opportunities.
- The second question on the community member survey, “How can we ensure that the people of Fort St. James are best prepared to manage these changes in our labour market?”, also elicited the need for economic diversification. Additionally, community members highlighted the need for “the right tools” to manage change, and provision of needed training.
- Some community members pointed to the need for government agencies to get involved in helping the community to retain its people. Programs to help the economy diversify, to increase employment opportunities, and to possibly extend Employment Insurance were suggested.
- While the employer skill requirements survey highlighted valuable information, no clear recommendations for group-focused training initiatives can be made from the data due to sample size limitations. Training assistance for impacted workers is available through the local WorkBC office. WorkBC approaches training needs on an individual basis, looking at each client’s specific training requirements, and providing the necessary support to assist the client in accessing training. If block training programs are to be pursued, further study into skill requirements that would be beneficial for group training is warranted. Consultation with local employers as well as Contractors with camp work opportunities to develop training programs is recommended to minimize the necessity for impacted workers to leave the community for future employment.
- Community members see an urgent need to diversify the local economy. Both tourism and small business startup were identified as ways to better diversify the local economy. Increased government/community investment in programs that encourage entrepreneurship, including start-up loans is recommended. Fort St. James would benefit from increased investment in tourism opportunities, and a coordinated approach to developing these initiatives would produce the most benefit.
- Increased access to a wider variety of training opportunities is seen by the community as an important step to labour market stability. The College of New Caledonia is working towards this goal at present and would benefit from additional provincial resources for programming at their Fort St. James location.