Why do we need supervisors in forestry?

By: Patrick Cox


Deals on Wheels writer Patrick Cox takes a look at the role of supervisors in a forestry business.

Is 'supervisor' the right name to give someone who has the responsibility of directing business people carrying out operations for the forest owners?

This is an interesting topic and one I got drawn into back in 1989 while logging for Fletchers in Kaingaroa Forest.

My supervisor at the time approached me and asked if I would give a talk at the next supervisors meeting; the topic being: supervisors, why do we need them.

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I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, as most logging contractors would agree even in today’s world that they have had a run in with a supervisor at some time or other.

Is this the right name to give someone who has the responsibility of directing business people carrying out operations for the forest owners? Let’s look at the meaning of the word ‘supervisor’.

A supervisor role is a low-level management position that gives the person authority over a worker or workplace. They have the power to give instructions and also be held responsible for the work and action of employees.

This is where I start to struggle with the role of a supervisor in a forestry environment. The contractors are not employees; they are contracted to the forest owner on a contract rate and, in turn, are employers by supplying personnel for whom they are responsible.

They will engage a foreman/supervisor to run the man management of the crew. That role makes them responsible for health and safety and production and unless given, they do not normally have the power to hire and fire.

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There’s not much economic advantage to the forest owner to have multiple supervisors running around the forest who aren’t well informed, as most people hired are fresh out of the university with a forestry degree. I recall stopping at Rainbow Mountain headquarters of Forest Corp some years ago on a Monday morning.

To say I was a little stunned was an understatement, as I drove behind the headquarters and there were 30 utes parked up. That’s a significant amount of money, multiplied by the salaries required to pay these guys to run around the bush all day telling contractors what to do.

The forest owner employed university graduates and then asked contractors if they could come out and work with you for a few months to gain practical experience. After that, they were whipped back to the office given a ute and they became your boss. Next day they are out there telling you what to do. To say they were now ‘experienced’ foresters doesn’t make much sense in such a scenario.

The contractor with a possible 20 years’ experience, the foreman/supervisor with 10 years or more, and the balance of the crew bringing in another 30 years makes it hard to comprehend how the forest owners can give this power to someone who is by definition just in a low-level management role in charge of employees.

A logging contractor with a crew with years of experience must find it frustrating being told what to do by an inexperienced supervisor. So why do we need them? The contractor has priced the block and they know how many loads are required every day.

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They also know the logs destination, they are responsible for the health and safety and well-being of the crew, they have walked the block and know how to log it. I ask what value does the low-level management role bring to the operation to make it run more efficiently?

With the technology available today, maybe an operations manager should be in charge, who can coordinate with the contractor online. Forest owners should now be able to use drone aerial footage for volume cut, checking topography, and roading issues.

With most modern logging machines being computerised and recording daily production, would this not be simple to forward on to dispatch? I guess a lot of this could already be happening and if it is, then supervisors must be a dying breed, and not before time, as this would free up more capital and enable contractors to be paid better rates.

So, there you have it. We do not need supervisors. Just because you have a forestry degree does not make you more intelligent than a logging contractor who left school at 16 and has been in the bush for 25 to 30 years, built up a substantial logging business by sheer determination and hard work, taking the knocks along the way and picking yourself up and dusting off and keep going.

The skills gained by logging contractors and their people are priceless. How can you put a value on them? But the forestry companies do for a few dollars per tonne. The fact remains that contractors need forest owners and forest owners need contractors.

Recognition of skills and the dedication by loggers moving forward by continuing to make their industry safer will in the future encourage more people to choose forestry as a career.  

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