Despite parental concerns about his chosen profession, Tint Lwin Thaung commenced his studies in forestry and thirty years later is the executive director of The Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC). “My first lecture was when forestry education was just about one type of wood and most of the students, and all of the teachers, were men,” Thaung said at a session on forestry education at the Forests Asia Summit.
Changes to the sector over the last half-century have resulted in the need for educational reform, panelists and participants at the session urged, if forestry is to produce relevant and quality graduates.
Thaung remembers being “trained very much like policemen – a conventional way of protecting the forests with technical skills like law enforcement.”
Upon entering the work force, and in his current position, Thaung quickly realized that his technical skills were no longer sufficient. Astute business and leadership skills were also paramount given that it’s people, not trees, who manage the forests.
The most recent evolution of forestry has been in its inherent value as a natural ecosystem and its potential in addressing climate change. If managed properly, forest conservation can be the most cost-effective way of abating carbon.
Forestry policy discussions are constantly evolving, and the session addressed the question of whether future foresters will be equipped to contribute. Existing forestry education, which has seen a decline in enrolments particularly in countries like Canada, has not typically focused on the policy and social implications of forest management. Without political training, Thaung doesn’t believe that foresters will be able to effectively participate in policy and decision making processes.
According to Hedrayanto, a professor at Bogor Agricultural University, educational institutions are working towards improving the quality of education and addressing diversity issues, such as gender. This, however, won’t immediately yield better job prospects for students. Unfortunately for graduates, there is little consensus amongst potential employers that soft skills are a priority when hiring, as the forestry industry still predominately favors those with traditional technical expertise, experts said.
It’s not just employers who haven’t been engaged in these discussions though, with students often sitting on the sidelines too.
Anna Finke, an incoming student at Yale’s Forestry and Environment school, was fortunate enough to complete her undergraduate studies in her home country of Germany where the importance of broader forestry studies complemented with soft skills was recognized. That said, Finke believes that the quality of the soft skill education is dependent on the resources of the schools and has yet to result in substantial improvements in the coursework.
Finke’s drivers for entering forestry are similar to Thaung’s because “being a forester means shaping a major part of the environment, it gives you the power to unite the desires of people and the needs of the environment.” She goes on to explain that future foresters will be able to combine systems and design thinking with traditional knowledge in order to be able to collaborate.
Beyond educational reforms, forestry employers also need to adapt to an ever changing 21st century job market, where soft skills and broader interdisciplinary approaches are highly valued. Given the advent of rapid technological advances, many sectors are having to reconsider their complete approach and the forestry industry is not exempt. Without this, the forestry industry may struggle to attract the most promising students.
A decline in forestry enrollment reflect the perception of the sector’s diminishing importance as a career choice. “Gen Y” have routinely prioritized the importance of a career that will allow for them to make a difference. Thaung questions how many Prime Ministers or Presidents have had a background in forestry, and the answer is very few.
Without changes to the current forestry industry and education system, potential future foresters – those who have the potential to be an unconventional leading figure in shaping our environment – are unlikely to consider forestry.
Linh Do, The Verb