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Labour shortage is “biggest issue” for timber supply

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Christian Fleetwood, The SE Voice on Naracoorte Community News

The peak body representing the South Australian timber supply chain says a labour shortage is affecting the state’s ability to meet demand for structural timber.

Amid an ongoing construction boom, demand for structural timber in residential builds has surged, but Australian processors are unable to increase the amount of timber entering the supply chain.

According to South Australian Forest Products Association (SAFPA) chief executive Nathan Paine, regional processors are currently operating at maximum capacity to produce structural timber.

Mr Paine told The SE Voice that, as far as he is aware, the two major structural timber processors in South Australia-Timberlink at Tarpeena and OneFortyOne at the Jubilee Highway Sawmill-are at maximum capacity for processing timber. Smaller processors, he said, are facing similar odds.

His comments come amid an industry call for local processors to receive greater volumes of exported, Australian timber and off the back of the release of a national inquiry into the timber supply chain.

This inquiry found a barrier exists for processors to purchase would-be exported log, in part because there isn’t a code of conduct between forest growers and domestic processors, or an index of export prices.

A lack of new forestry due to an historic reduction to estates was also identified as a major barrier.

“The issue isn’t access to log,” Mr Paine said.

“The issue is that we just simply do not have any more capacity to process more structural timber because the two mills are operating at capacity.”

Mr Paine said the industry was currently facing more than double usual demand for structural timber.

When demand for timber products to Australia’s largest export market, China, dramatically reduced last year, workers in South Australia’s Green Triangle paid the price with hundreds of jobs lost.

But with a return of demand for structural timber products, in large part caused by the federal government’s Home-Builder grant scheme, “we’re seeing the counter situation,” Mr Paine said.

The industry is unable to produce more timber as it lacks the workforce to increase capacity.

“Part of it is increased demand and increased operations,” Mr Paine said.

“Part of it is also the fact that Australia’s closed its borders and we don’t have international migration.”

Adding to the problem is that people are not moving as freely across Australia’s national borders.

Mr Paine said SAFPA has engaged the state government on strategies that could unlock additional access to additional skills and labour for the industry. In addition, SAFPA is driving to increase domestic manufacturing, and has received state government and state opposition support, “so that more of the trees that are grown in South Australia are processed in South Australia”.

Mr Paine is confident the market will adapt, and consumers will be able to access timber, eventually.

However, he said the current juncture gives Australia a window into what the future will look like-unless “we address the big issue in the room, which is getting more trees in the ground”.

“We need 30,000 hectares of trees, of new plantation in the ground, just to get us back to where we were,” he said.

“And then we need to look to grow even further, and through that growth, through that confidence, I have no doubt that we’ll see more domestic manufacturing in Australia.”

When asked if the Green Triangle could sustainably grow its forestry industry, Mr Paine replied: “We see absolute opportunity to grow the industry.”

Naracoorte Community News 23 June 2021

This article appeared in Naracoorte Community News, 23 June 2021.

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