As the employment situation gets worse, forestry — an industry long plagued by an aging workforce and regarded as an unattractive, low-paying career — is drawing renewed attention.
Meetings held by forestry organizations are attracting a growing number of participants.
“Due to depopulation, there are many mountain forests that have become desolated because they haven’t been properly thinned,” an official at one group said. “We would like people to return to the countryside.”
The National Federation of Forest Owners’ Co-operative Associations, or Zen Mori, held a meeting in Tokyo on Jan. 23 and 24 that attracted 5,300 potential job applicants, up 1,000 from last year.
“My daughter is 1. This is a good chance to change jobs both in terms of timing and my age,” said Tatsuya Ishii, a 37-year-old building maintenance worker. “But I know it’s hard work.”
Ryo Iwabuchi, 35, a dispatch worker at an automobile plant whose contract was terminated at the end of last year, said he is tired of urban life and wants to learn new skills, find steady work and settle down.
Hiroki Ito, 32, who quit a construction company two years ago and has been working for a forestry association in his native Akita Prefecture, said, “I feel rewarded just in seeing a forest look brighter after it has been properly maintained.”
But the Forestry Agency said it is difficult earning a good living in logging because of sagging lumber prices.
According to a 2006 study by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, a household engaged in the forestry industry took in an average of just ¥480,000 in that field, meaning many had to earn outside income.
In 2005, there were 50,000 foresters nationwide, down 18 percent from 40 years ago, and those aged 65 or older accounted for 26 percent of the total, compared with only 9 percent in all industries.
“Because of hard labor, people cannot work for very long unless they love nature and are mentally tough,” a forestry official said.
It requires at least three years for people to learn the basics of the industry, including handling a chain saw.
“Of about 70 trainees who joined us in 2008, eight have already quit due to poor physical condition and other reasons,” an official at the Nagano Prefecture Forestry Labor Foundation said.
However, the situation surrounding the industry has some bright spots.
Forest resources are abundant. Trees planted in the early postwar years are now ready to be logged.
With global demand for lumber growing, the price of timber is expected to rise.
To help combat global warming by securing sources to absorb carbon dioxide, the Forestry Agency has expanded subsidies for thinning forests and a system to promote employment in the industry.
A Nagano Prefectural Forestry Labor Fund official said: “Because work stops at sunset, forestry workers can take good care of their families. During the training period, the average monthly pay is ¥160,000 to ¥180,000 and some can live in village-run houses with low rent.”
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