A natural fit: Q&A with Charlene Strelaeff, fibre forester at Mercer Celgar
By Kristina Urquhart
Who: Charlene Strelaeff
Role: Fibre forester
Employer: Mercer International (Mercer Celgar)
Lives in: Castlegar, B.C.
Years in industry: 28
Charlene Strelaeff’s love for the outdoors pushed her into a forestry career, first in lumber and now in pulp and paper. She works at Mercer Celgar in log procurement, an area that she says is underrepresented when it comes to women. Reflecting on the worker shortage facing the industry, Strelaeff says she wants to see more diversity – as long as it’s the right person for the job.
Pulp & Paper Canada: What do you do as a fibre forester for the Mercer Celgar pulp mill?
Charlene Strelaeff: Primarily, I purchase roundwood. I’m a log buyer. I used to run our certification program and our chip quality program. We’ve brought on another person and I’m still working with them through the transition period.
I also do some analytics for the fibre department – looking at costing and reviewing potential fibre opportunities with respect to utilization. A lot of working with vendors on trying to minimize what’s going into the waste pile and making sure that it’s coming in to us as usable pulp fibre.
We currently have two remote yards with chippers in them, and we have a chipper on-site here as well as a wood room. With the three chipping operations, we take in a wood profile that is quite uncommon – we take right down to the very top of the tree.
PPC: How has the past year been different for you with the way that log prices have been going? How does your job change with the cycle of the market?
CS: I’ve been log buying since July of 2018. And when I started in my role, it was right about the time that lumber markets were booming. It was very hard to get pulpwood to move because there was a huge focus on sawlogs. It was a tight market. We were paying high prices trying to secure pulp logs and we were reaching further.
In the fall of 2018, sawlog markets started to crash. Pulp markets were still relatively strong, but pulp fibre prices were still high to bring the fibre in. In British Columbia, our stumpage values are very high right now. That was never really a huge factor in pulp logs previously, because the way it works with stratums and off-grade, with the percentage of a stand and the percentage of pulp log that comes in, there is usually a very small value for stumpage.
The cost of that five or 10 per cent sawlog content in the little pulp log that doesn’t quite meet a sawlog spec but can’t be utilized in the mill, is quite a bit higher now because of the increased value in stumpage. It’s very hard to rationalize pulp log pricing because you are essentially paying a sawlog price for a pulp product. It has made it very challenging.
PPC: You were working in the lumber industry before. How has your role as a forester changed at the pulp mill?
CS: In scope and scale, working for a pulp mill is so different. The sheer size of our supply area, the number of vendors and just the amount of volume that you handle. I came from a small mill. It takes so many of those to feed the size of a pulp mill. It’s a larger footprint; it’s a larger entity.
Markets are changing, margins are tight, supply is getting tighter, and I think companies are having to get much more innovative in what they’re doing.
PPC: What’s your favourite thing about working at Mercer Celgar?
CS: We have a wonderful team. We have a lot of innovative ideas, we’re constantly trying to find new opportunities for fibre, and we’re constantly looking at ways of reducing costs. We’re not afraid to look outside the box, and we all collaborate and work very well together.
PPC: What excites you about the pulp and paper industry?
CS: In British Columbia, markets are changing. Margins are tight, supply is getting tighter, and I think companies have to get much more innovative in what they’re doing. We have to become more efficient, and need to look at how we use fibre, where we use fibre, and look at our waste streams and what opportunities there are. I think it’s a good time to be in the pulp and paper industry because we’re just emerging into different areas that we maybe haven’t seen in the past.
PPC: What got you interested in a career in forestry?
CS: I grew up in a small town with a mill, and my entire family is forestry-based. My grandfathers owned small sawmills; my dad was a road builder. I love the outdoors. In high school I started doing map projects and colouring for the mill next door for their development plans. When I took high school biology in grade 11, we did a forestry plant ID project and at that point knew I wanted to go into forestry. It was a natural fit.
PPC: What did you study in school to prepare?
CS: I actually started working a little bit in forestry before I went to school. There was a consulting company working for the local mill and I’d heard they were looking for a development person to do forestry work. I asked them if I could try a position, so I knew for sure that I wanted to invest in that type of career.
I started in college and did some university transfer courses. Then went to the University of British Columbia for the forest operations program at UBC, which at the time was called the harvesting program. Because I’d had a bit of exposure to development and that side of things, I had a really strong interest in the operational side of forestry.
After I graduated, I took a position with a consulting company in Nelson. I did my articling for my FIT for two years and then wrote my RPF exam. The start of my career was heavily in layout, cutting permit development and operational planning.
PPC: Did you have mentors as you started out?
CS: My earliest mentor was in the job I took before I went to university. His name was Sterling Angus. He was a great mentor and he was also a temporary prof at UBC. It was never a question of whether I could do the job or not do the job. He taught me a lot of things about the field. Just all of the basic steps to get started, and he made sure that I had exposure to the different elements in development.
When I went into the consulting company in Nelson, there was great exposure there. There was a woman that I worked with, Kathy Howard – she was one of the planners for the licensee – and she just took the opportunity to explain things clearly. I could see that there were opportunities to move up, and that there weren’t a lot of barriers.
Most of my mentors have been men in my career, which, given it’s forestry, it’s mostly men. But I have worked with many women over the years as well. When I first started, there weren’t any women. The first company I worked for, I worked in remote camps and I was the only woman in camp. But as I got further into the job and into my career, there were more women in the development side, in the planning side, and in the silviculture side.
PPC: What challenges did you encounter early in your career as a woman?
I’d applied for a forestry tech position when I was 18. They had another position posted that was for camp cook. When I walked in the door, they asked me, ‘Are you applying for the cook’s position?’ I said no, I’m applying for the forestry tech position. I have no experience, but you know, try me out for three days and if you don’t think I can cut the mustard, then don’t hire me. I ended up working for them for a couple of years after that. It was just the first perception; I don’t think they had qualms at all about my gender and my abilities.
There have been two instances through my career where I’ve absolutely been exposed to people that really felt women didn’t belong in the industry, but I would say it is a very minute percentage of what I’ve been exposed to. The thing that surprised me the most was that it wasn’t the older men that I had challenges with – it was ones closer to my own age. The older guys and the loggers were all very supportive.
The more negative experiences I’ve had have actually been more from outside of the industry. From women, surprised about my career. The comments – ‘I can’t believe you do that!’ ‘Aren’t you afraid of bears?’ Or, ‘Why would you want to do that, it’s dirty.’
My best friend’s mother used to hook chokers in the family’s logging business. And she would go out with her husband and operate the equipment and work in the bush. I have seen from a young age women that were in male-dominated industries and in “male” roles so I just kind of passed it off.
PPC: What challenges do you find in your role in 2020?
CS: I wouldn’t say challenges in the role, I think it’s challenges in the industry. The challenge that I foresee in the next five to 10 years of my career is that we have very limited capacity coming up in the industry. We do not have a lot of people filling the roles in the logging positions; we do not have a lot of young people in the technical or in the forester positions. There’s some coming in that are just starting out, but there is a big gap between my age group of foresters, and the 20-somethings that are coming up. There is going to be a deficit.
My demographic, we’re going to have to work to really ensure that we transfer the knowledge.
Go in and present to students, tell them what the job is, tell them what forestry is, tell them what some of the research roles are in their communities, and develop that interest.
PPC: There are also not enough young people even trying to come into the sector in the first place. What should industry do?
CS: I think, as professionals in the industry, one thing we can do is communicate the benefits and the opportunities. I have gone into the schools. I think it’s important for us to contribute back into our community.
One is educating the general public what we do as foresters and why the role is important. Go in and present to students: tell them what the job is, tell them what forestry is, tell them what some of the research roles are in their communities, and develop that interest.
PPC: What advice would you give to a young person, especially a female, who might be thinking about a career in forestry?
CS: My honest advice would be don’t second-guess yourself, and ask for what you think you’re worth. Don’t be afraid to ask. Women negotiate very differently than men. We usually will take whatever is offered; we don’t push the same boundaries or take as much risk.
I don’t necessarily think that we need to operate the way that men do. But I do think that we tend to not step forward as a gender in the same way, and I think that we do ourselves a disservice. We shouldn’t be afraid to promote ourselves, or to ask for what we think is fair instead of just accepting the first offer.
If you accept the low wage, all of the bumps that you get along the way are incrementally lower than somebody that negotiated for the extra dollar. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.
PPC: That’s great advice. Anything else?
CS: One thing I do want to say, there have been some really phenomenal men in my career that I’ve worked with that just have really helped open doors, and I really value that. It’s great.
We all work differently and I think it’s important to have different genders, different races, different views, and different perspectives on all of the teams that you work on. I think that’s what makes the team that I work on work really well. We all have different personalities and we all have different views and I think that’s what really helps us succeed.
I want to see more gender diversity and ethnic diversity in the industry. The one thing we have to be careful with though is if people truly want to come in and do the job. I as a woman in industry would never want to be provided an opportunity for a job solely because I’m a woman. I want to earn the job, regardless of my gender.
We need to be careful that we still maintain that integrity, that we are promoting people based on their performance, and their qualities.
We shouldn’t be afraid to promote ourselves, or to ask for what we think is fair instead of just accepting the first offer.
PPC: We need to even the playing field and encourage everyone to consider forestry by showcasing a range of people in these roles.
CS: I don’t know how many female log buyers there are out there. I don’t think there’s a lot. I myself would never have seen myself in this role – not that I would have felt that I couldn’t do it, I just never really thought of it being a fit.
It seems a lot of women tend to go more into silviculture or planning or into wildlife biology and I think part of it is just not seeing that that role or opportunity is a fit or that it’s even there.
I think that’s where the value is in these articles like the one you’re writing, in that it shows that these opportunities are out there.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.