New Alberni Pacific Division technology will cost 14 jobs
Western Forest Products Inc. is investing $6.7 million in an electronic lumber grading machine to be installed at Alberni Plywood Division, WFP vice-chair Lee Doney said.
The announcement was made at APD on Wednesday afternoon in front of mill employees, civic officials, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson and Parksville-Qualicum MLA Ron Catelon.
The automatic lumber grader will be the first in coastal B.C., will make grading more efficient and streamline a labour intensive job.
But on the other side of the ledger the technology investment comes at a price as up to 14 jobs will be lost, officials said.
The company has managed to turn a profit through 10 financial quarters despite a tough economy, and chose to plow $125 million into its mills.
The industry took it on the chin during one of the biggest downturns in recent memory and the investment could be construed as a sign that a step has been taken out from under the economic weight.
“We want to recognize the investment on the coast being made by the mills,” Thomson later said. “It’s important that we recognize and support this investment.”
Automatic lumber grading is used extensively in the B.C. Interior as well as elsewhere in the world.
In the interior, there are only two species of trees to automatically scan. In B.C. there are five species of wood to work with.
“The interior and coasts are very different,” Doney said. “We have to have a technology that works.”
The equipment scans wood fiber as lumber passes by workers on a belt. The wood is then sorted by size and grade based on the data generated.
The autoscanner is being tested repeatedly between now and October, after which it will be installed at APD.
The new technology requires fewer workers to operate than the old one did and 14 workers will lose their jobs, said APD Manager Joe Holmes. There may be some displacement, “But we will find people jobs in the mill,” Holmes said.
The average age of the mill’s workers is 54, so some of those 14 jobs will be lost through attrition, he said. Other workers will find slots by virtue of their seniority.
The upside is that the new technology will provide a more stable footing for the remaining jobs, Holmes said.
The news of job loss clarified what had been on the mill’s unofficial employee telegraph for weeks, said Rick Neuwirth, president of United Steelworkers Local 185.
“We’ve heard rumours about this but the first time I officially heard it was at the announcement today,” Neuwirth said.
The move is a double-edged sword, he said. “They’re investing in the mill but it’s at a cost of jobs.
“The benefit down the line too is that they won’t be closing the mill if they make this kind of investment.”
Neuwirth and other officials will be notifying their membership before having a sit-down with mill management to discuss transitioning to the new technology.