Employers hungry for wood co-op grads

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Employers are snapping up students in UBC's Wood Products Processing Co-operative Education Program--evidence that the industry demand that led to the creation of the program is a reality, the program's director says.

"The response we've had from employers has been excellent," says Prof. Simon Ellis. "As a new program, we're still gaining momentum, but there's no question the wood products industry is ready and waiting to put our students and, in a few years, graduates to work."

The Wood Products Processing Program was launched in 1995 after UBC was selected to develop the program by an industry-led national education initiative. The program's first students are now in the third year of the five-year program.

"I made the right decision," says Rahim Lavji, a third-year student who started an eight-month co-op job, his second, in January. "I really like what I'm doing and can see myself doing this sort of work in the future."

Lavji, who's working for the Pine Falls Furniture Co., a Maple Ridge manufacturer of pine furniture, is one of nine students working at co-op jobs this semester. His classmates are spread across Canada, in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. Employers this semester range from Canadian Forest Product's research and development centre in Vancouver, to Loewen Windows in Steinbach, Man.

Pine Falls general manager Trevor Sandwell says the specialized knowledge that students are gaining in the Wood Products Processing Program is important to ensure the Canadian industry can compete internationally.

"We need people with advanced skills and knowledge to propel us into global markets, where we're competing with companies from around the world," he says. "We would not be able to compete with the skill level that we have now. We have to increase our technical skills and the technical level of our equipment as well.

"Our major competitors are Scandinavian manufacturers with highly trained staff and a superior level of technical equipment."

Students in the program spend a total of 19 months in work placements and a month gaining practical woodworking experience. The academic portion of the program includes courses in wood science, engineering and commerce.

Students start with two full school years of instruction before beginning their first co-op term of three months preceded by the month of woodworking. The following three years comprise equal time at UBC and in the workplace. The program is administered by the Wood Science Dept. in the Faculty of Forestry while the co-op portion is the responsibilty of the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing. Members of the industry also continue to play an important role in shaping the program.

"Industry is still instrumental in helping us deliver the program," says Ellis. "Professionals from industry are frequent guest lecturers. That will continue into the future, allowing us to maintain a high degree of industrial relevancy."

Christine Forget, co-operative education co-ordinator for the program, says that, with word of the program spreading throughout the industry, the demand for students is increasing.

"I often have companies calling me to see if they can get a student to work for them. Last semester we had jobs left unfilled," says Forget, who also approaches companies she feels could benefit from hiring a co-op student or which one of the program's students has expressed an interest in working for.

There are 22 students enrolled in the co-operative portion of the program at present, nine in third year and 13 in second year. Another 16 students are in the first year of the program. Ellis says he expects a steady increase in enrolment with student numbers reaching 40 to 50 students in each of the program's last four years.

The program is expected to draw transfer students into second year from colleges and universities across Canada, says Ellis, adding that efforts are being made to make the program more accessible.

"We're looking at offering second year in a distance education format because we realize a lot of these people are going to come from smaller communities in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada ," says Ellis. "It can be quite expensive for a student to come to the Lower Mainland."

The prospect of work upon completion of the program remains an important draw, Ellis says. And the wood products industry is proving its commitment.

"We're looking to the program to supply us with management personnel in years to come," says Sandwell. "It's absolutely critical that we're able to develop our people to meet the global challenge. We have to do it."