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Jordan Barlow is passionate about building timber-framed homes and furniture - photo by Martin Dee
Jordan Barlow is passionate about building timber-framed homes and furniture - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 5 | May 4, 2006

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Wood science grad has global perspective

By Brian Lin

Jordan Barlow doesn’t think he can solve all the problems in the world, but that won’t stop him from making small contributions to a handful of people.

“If you learn something or discover something, you should share that with the world,” says Barlow, who is graduating this spring with a BSc in wood product processing from the Faculty of Forestry.

“That way everyone grows and benefits from that knowledge. It’s selfish to hoard it and die with it.”

Barlow recently returned from a seven-month co-op term at the University of Stellenbosch. He visited local factories and interviewed plant managers and workers to help the South African university integrate industry practices into its academic-heavy wood science program.

“They’re basically where UBC was 10 years ago,” explains Barlow, who grew up in Castlegar, B.C., a small mill town in the Central Kootenay region.

Known for its inexpensive labour and fast-growing trees, the South African wood products sector is now facing stiff competition from China, which is taking a large share of the export furniture market with its cheap but knowledgeable work force and abundant high-tech equipment.

“What we’re offering is Canada’s experience in developing wood science curriculum and training programs so they can better educate their work force,” says Barlow. “One factory I visited had 300 workers, and only 20 of them knew how to operate the machinery. The others could be replaced at any time with any of the unemployed workers lining up outside.”

The dispensable work force also means that employee health and safety programs are almost non-existent.

“In many cases, it makes more sense for the employer to hand out condoms rather than safety goggles, because the worker is more likely to contract HIV before he is injured on the job. Parts of the factory close down every few days so the workers can attend the funeral of one of their colleagues.”

Despite its growing pains and post-apartheid instability, the South African industry is slowly carving out its own niche, says Barlow.

“It’s a case of working with what you have,” he adds. “Unable to afford multi-million-dollar machinery, some of the smaller factories are now employing skilled workers to make unique, one-off custom furniture items by hand, and selling them to the UK at very high prices. That’s a very effective model that many rural B.C. towns and First Nations communities could adopt.”

Barlow learned an important lesson of his own. “Inequality is the root of all problems,” says Barlow, who was confused to find two men’s washrooms side-by-side in the Stellenbosch university’s forestry building — until he realized that during apartheid, one was for white people, the other for non-white.

“Sharing knowledge is the only way to empower developing nations. Monetary aid is just a temporary band-aid. I definitely see myself taking time in the future to volunteer and share my knowledge.”

Hoping to make a career building timber-framed homes and high-end custom furniture, the handy 24-year-old admits there’s one job he’d drop everything for.

“I want to be a writer for Saturday Night Live,” says Barlow. “I just enjoy making people laugh. If people are smiling, I’m having a good time.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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