A contractor is offering a yearly bonus of about $3640 if workers turn up for work and stay drug-free as the silviculture industry struggles to recruit and retain good staff.
Training programmes have been introduced but Kiwis are reluctant to take on the physically demanding jobs, experts say, and there is still a reliance on migrants.
Bay of Plenty is part of the largest forestry region, central North Island. Forestry was the region's third-biggest export, according to MPI, earning more than $6.7 billion a year.
Inta-Wood Forestry director Nathan Fogden said he paid bonuses of about $3640 to attract reliable, drug-free workers. These were paid at intervals throughout the year and he had up to eight to 10 jobs available at any given time in Rotorua.
"It's a carrot that was brought in to acknowledge loyalty. They get paid some of it after six months but we really want them to stay for longer."
Fogden did just under 300 drug tests last year - no one failed. This year one test came back positive for cannabis and Fogden said every failure resulted in a cut to their bonus.
But finding Kiwis willing to do the physically demanding work who were drug-free was proving difficult.
The industry was looking for people aged 18 to 35 but unfortunately, typically some people in that age bracket were recreational drug and alcohol users, he said.
"Those two things clash."
Fogden said, in his view, wages needed to be higher. His workers could make upwards of $54,000.
"It's damn hard and damn physical. You are working in all sorts of weather and you have a whole lot of health and safety components that other workplaces don't have to worry about.
"There's still a disparity between what the grassroots men and women across the field get paid and we don't have an industry without those people."
This year Fogden had 1200ha of planting to do between the end of May and mid September but due to staff levels he might only get 900ha done.
Mahi Rākau Forest Management's health, safety, training and recruitment co-ordinator Joe Taute said the company had between between 135 and 140 staff.
He said it was difficult to keep Kiwi workers on the job and they had 30 vacancies available now.
"Many only last a few days or weeks due to the early morning starts, challenging environment and tough elements we work in."
Taute said the company was always looking for Kiwi workers but had not hired any new employees recently because they were unsure of the work ahead of them due to Covid.
Fijians and Filipinos made up 40 per cent of their current workforce and this is largely due to their strong work ethic and dependable nature - "you can't fault the effort they put in".
"We have put a lot of work into training our staff and we pay them well. Retention is good at the moment."
His top people could earn about $80,000 a year.
Mahi Rākau also has an award-winning women's crew that has been running for two years.
The company contracted to major forestry owners, including Timberlands, PF Olsen and NZ Forest Managers.
It runs 15 crews that provide all silviculture services, including thinning, planting, regen pulling, pruning, wilding control, tree straightening, spraying and fertilising.
Mahi Rākau also provide firefighting services.
"Our team are made up of fully trained, fully qualified firefighters who are registered with FENZ.''
Forest Industry Contractors Association chief executive Prue Younger said the association recently did a survey to find out future workforce requirements for planting.
The results showed the Bay of Plenty, which was part of the central North Island, was the largest forestry region in the country.
"Most of the forest owners and big corporates are operating out of your region. They have improved or are well aware of workers' conditions and business practices so we tend not to have any big issues in forest areas like that."
According to the survey, forest growers said all their plantings had been done and crews recruited.
"But our silviculture contractors said we need about 250 people and we are not sure how we are going to get our contracts done."
Younger said as the industry became more mechanised, technology would take over some of those jobs. Now they have machinery that could take the logs and strip them, cut and stack and chop them up into pieces.
"It's all replacing two or three guys on the skids so our contractors or crews are actually dropping in numbers but it is an ageing workforce.
"We need to maintain the recruitment of a new workforce."
She said people with IT and mechanical skills would be needed.
Competenz chief executive Fiona Kingsford said the forestry sector was busier than ever and demand for workers was high.
More than 5400 people would be needed to fill roles in the industry over the next five years.
"A challenge for the industry is that with border restrictions in place due to Covid, the immigrant workforce that has supported silviculture in the past has all but disappeared, making Kiwi trainees in demand more than ever.
"The good news is that we've seen a significant increase in the number of Kiwis enrolling in forestry training programmes over the past couple of years."
In 2021, 23 per cent more learners were training compared to the same period last year with 4000 people enrolled across courses.
Central North Island Wood Council generation programme manager Damita Mita said its pathway into paid employment programme would launch in July in the Bay of Plenty.
"It will assist the region to alleviate the difficulties that the wood sector possesses in regard to workforce shortfall."
The trainees would be based at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in Tokoroa.
Ministry for Social Development regional director Kim Going said in the past 12 months the ministry had supported 22 silviculture contractors to take on 40 people through the Forestry Industry Contractors Association programme in Rotorua.
Meanwhile, another further 40 people were placed into forestry-related roles through its work services team.
The Ministry for Primary Industries said, in a written statement, the Forestry and Wood Processing Workforce Action Plan 2020–2024 was developed in 2019 by MPI and representatives from across the forestry and wood processing sector.
The Forestry and Wood Processing Workforce Council oversees the actions specific to developing workforce capability and capacity for the sector.