A tree-planter works in a cut in Ontario. Lindsay MacLean, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
Tree-planting has been a popular money-making gig among students for decades, but for Brontie Hladysh, it's more than a summer job. In a tight job market, it has become the way she makes her living and finances her travels.
And she's not alone. With the challenges facing graduates who are trying to find scarce entry-level positions in the professions they've studied for, tree-planting companies are seeing a shift from predominantly student planters who are looking to make tuition and rent money, to more young people who are making it their full-time career.
"Tree planting is very physically and mentally draining, it’s very tough," says Melissa Hakojarvi, co-owner of Treeline Reforestation, a company based in northeastern Ontario.
"Tree-planters tend to be money hungry, that’s the whole reason of doing this crazy, crazy job, is the money," she adds. "When you’re dealing with all these elements - the bugs, the dirt, you know, the weather - if you’re going to do that type of job, you want to be paid better."
Hard to find other jobs
Hladysh, who is 22 years old, decided to go planting with her sister after hearing about the job from a friend. When she planted her last tree in her first season, she swore she would never go back. But four years later, she’s getting ready for another season.
"It’s not particularly easy to find other jobs anymore," says Hladysh.
In contrast, for veterans like Hladish, there are lots of planting jobs. She just sends an email to the tree-planting company saying she’ll be coming back, and the job is hers.
And with the current youth unemployment rate for Canadians ages 15 to 24 at 13.6 per cent, tree-planting has become an appealing profession for those who are willing to put up with the less-than-ideal conditions.
Hladysh, who went to Wilfrid Laurier University for a year before dropping out to pursue a more alternative lifestyle, has used her planting money so far to go to Whistler, Australia and Southeast Asia. She'll be heading out to British Columbia to plant this spring to fund her next trip to Europe.
"I get through it knowing at the end of it all I’ll be off somewhere and this is the fastest way to get the money to do that," says Hladysh, who planted 110,000 trees in two months during her last season in Ontario.
Jordan Watson, a former tree-planter and graduating biomedical engineering student at the University of Western Ontario, says he has several friends like Hladysh who plant full-time instead of going to school. They plant all over Canada during the spring, summer and fall seasons, and then head to Australia to plant over the winter.
Value of veterans
The majority of planters are still students looking to pay off debt or make money to continue their education in Ontario, but more planters are going pro, particularly out west. And the reforestation companies are happy to see increasing numbers of seasoned planters returning.
When crew bosses’ salaries partially depend on the earnings of the planters, they’re more likely to hire experienced professional planters over rookie planters, because professional planters are more likely to stick around. Veterans also tend to plant more and get the job done faster, as they're experienced and depend on the money.
"In the last couple of years we’ve been tending to have a lot of difficulty keeping [rookie] planters, unfortunately, because they tend to work for a year or two and then maybe go out west for longer contracts or to get paid better," says Hakojarvi.
She says if Treeline is lucky, 30 per cent of its new planters return for another season.
Garth Hadley, director of Coast Range, was a planter himself in Ontario in the late '80s and understands the motivation to move out west.
"There are better working conditions, shorter hours, access to the block [planting area] is more straightforward, it’s not as remote because you go off the mountain. You’re actually closer to town and urban centres, way less mosquitoes," Hadley says.
"Our quality standards are higher, just the way it is, but our tree prices are higher. An experienced planter doesn’t have to work as hard for more money."
Planters normally need to complete a few seasons in Ontario before heading out west, so they can prepare for conditions. It’s easier to plant in Ontario because there’s a more uniform type of land base, whereas in British Columbia there’s more variance due to the elevation of the mountains, which isn’t ideal for rookie planters.
Hadley estimates 60 per cent of his staff this year is from Ontario and the majority of his planters are typically experienced.
Hakojarvi says in addition to losing veteran planters to the west coast, in her recent experience, she is noticing that student planters are less committed to their contracts. Treeline has experienced a shortage of workers in the past few years because many students quit before the season starts or after a few weeks of planting.
She says students who are looking to make money for rent and tuition either don’t need the money that badly or decide they would rather find another less physically-demanding part-time job.
Watson says last year when students quit early, it left more work for the remaining student planters and professional planters, as Treeline had to extend their contracts to get the required amount of trees planted.
Students favoured by some companies
But even as more planters go pro, some companies, like Coast Range located in British Columbia, still prefer students.
"[With] some of the older folks, it’s not as much fun with them, sometimes they can be a little more negative or not so much team players. And I just like the dynamic we generally have with students," says Hadley.
With lots of work available for both rookie and professional planters, there's little tension between the two groups. Being out in the cold, buggy outdoors 24/7 tends to create a bond between tree-planters, regardless of why they’re planting.
"In my first two years it was a really big group, we’re-all-in-this-together kind of vibe, so even students who planted with people who were planting to make a living, we all kind of worked together," says Watson.
While a number of his friends have decided to go professional, Watson will not be returning this year. He used planting as a way to make rent money during his university years, but it's a difficult way to earn a living and says he has no plans to become a full-time planter.
"For some people, they get there and it’s their summer job, and then after the summer they think they can do it indefinitely. Until they change their mind and go back to school."
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