Casualties of Modernity: Logging Companies Strive to Replace Their Aging Workforce

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Young, Able-Bodied Workers Hard to Find in Logging Industry.

Young and able-bodied recruits are hard to find in the logging industry.
High school graduates are prone to pursue jobs in other higher paying industries, said Jim Geisinger, Executive Vice President of the Association of Oregon Loggers. He mentioned that forklift drivers in nearby distribution centers can earn between $15-16 per hour as opposed to entry level hourly wages of loggers, which is between $12-13 in Ore.
The national mean for hourly logging wages is only $14.55. Fallers typically fair the best with wages averaging $16.21 per hour. Equipment operators make approximately $13.52 an hour, while graders and scalers average $12.06 per hour. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2002 Occupational Employment and Wages report, the mean annual salary for the logging industry is $30,260, but that number reflects management and operations positions in addition to salaries earned by employees working in the fields. While that may be enough to support a carefree bachelor, it’s hardly enough to sustain an entire family. Such figures often leave young employees searching for higher wages and the possibility of upward mobility.
For many logging contractors, the business has been passed down from generation to generation for years. Contractors are telling their children to look for other occupations because “there’s just not enough money here,” said Daniel Dructor, Executive Director of the American Loggers Council.
Bill Jones, Executive Director of the Alabama Loggers Council admits that “the biggest challenge now is for our loggers to find competitive labor for the rates that are available in other industries.”
Other challenges include competing with health care and retirement packages other industries offer young people. “We’ve got a couple of car plants here that are offering pretty good incentive packages,” said Jones, “they have an opportunity to pick the best available labor force.”
Jones and Geisinger both said that the average age of contractors in their respective states is 47. “That’s pretty old to be running up and down steep slopes in the rain,” Geisinger remarked.
Another problem in the industry is the unavailability of affordable insurance and worker’s compensation packages. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 106 logging fatalities occurred in 2004. Of those work related deaths, 28 involved transportation, 70 were equipment related, and three people died from falls. The other five were unspecified, but the numbers clearly demonstrate the inherent danger involved in harvesting timber. Jones noted that it’s difficult to find an insurance company willing to write a policy for a small four or five employee company.
Drug abuse is also taking a heavy toll on the workforce. While still taboo among employers, “these boys are having trouble finding a drug free workforce,” said Executive Director Joe Allen of the Southeastern Wood Producers Association. Even though Georgia and Florida mandate drug free work places, that does not necessarily mean enforcement actually happens.
The one positive consequent of initiating drug free work programs is the decrease in worker’s compensation premiums. Companies that do require employee drug testing can receive up to a 10% reduction in premiums, Allen said.
Environmentalists have subtly stymied logging recruiters by desecrating the occupation. Once, logging was seen as a worthy source of income, something a man could do in a symbiotic relationship with nature to put food on the table for his family. Now, the profession is seen as a metaphor for destruction and humankind’s innate violence.
“I think environmentalists have sort of laid some of their issues on the backs of the logger, and I don’t think it was correctly placed,” said Sandra Brawders of Maine’s Professional Logging Contractors. “I think loggers took the brunt of it. What we feel we needed to do was to say that [logging] is responsible harvesting of a renewable resource.
“You’ve got a lot of kids coming up nowadays that think logging is just an evil thing,” said Dructor. “They’re being taught that in our school systems; it’s in the books. I get letters from teachers and their students asking why we cut trees, [because] it’s a terrible thing to do. They’re being taught now that logging is not a very glamorous profession.”
Dructor added that when coupled with the negative attention logging receives; the lack of financial prosperity detracts potential employees. “When there’s no money in it and the public doesn’t like it” he asked hypothetically, “then why in the world would I want to do this?”
Federal legislation over the past two decades has created escalating domestic costs and stiff competition in the global market. “We have rules and regulations that other countries don’t have, so we’ve seen the shift of primary pulp and paper mills leaving the country so they can operate cheaper stumpage, cheaper labor, and ship their products back here to sell,” Dructor complained.
Lowered logging rates at mills form a direct correlation with the competitiveness of the global industry. As a result, “profit margins have just bottomed out, noted Dructor. “A good return on an investment now would be in the 2-3% range for $1.5 million, which is not very good. Who wants to invest those kinds of numbers in a logging operation when they could invest in a mutual fund somewhere and draw twice that, conservatively?”
Beltway bureaucrats might as well be the undertaker’s handmaidens in the logging industry. New legislative interpretations of the Endangered Species Act “wiped out a lot of federal timber” during the 1990’s in the Northwest, said renowned forestry consultant Paul Ehinger. He accuses the Clinton Administration of bias due to the superfluous legislation, and ensuing litigation from environmental agencies, surrounding the Spotted Owl debate. “They knocked out federal timber as a source of timber for the mills.”
Geisinger reports that timber harvests in Oregon have been cut in half over the last decade. The state maintained roughly 8 billion board ft. for several decades, and now produces approximately 4 million board ft. annually, he said.
“When you lose mill capacity, you lose logging capacity,” said Dructor frankly. A primary concern for loggers is how to cope with the limited opportunities for selling timber to mills. When one mill closes, you have to multiply that number times five for all the wood workers who have lost jobs as a result, according to Dructor.
Consequently, some states are dealing with overproduction. “We’re against the wall,” Allen acknowledged. Mills are imposing quotas in Georgia and Florida because mills are so full, often allowing loggers to work 3.5-4 days out of the week.
Also, contractors have the added responsibility of acting as brokers. On top of ensuring safety, quality, and production, they must market and sell their timber harvest at competitive rates. Hence, contractors have less time to spend in the field training entry-level loggers.
“You can’t give pay raises if you don’t get pay raises,” said Allen, referring to the tight market. Dructor said that ALC is try to better the communication between loggers and mills to “figure out ways to be more productive while cutting costs.” Some companies are experimenting with dollar incentive, said Dructor, whereby mills would pay an additional dollar per ton for domestic timber harvests. Dructor insisted that such practices prevent loggers from remaining globally competitive. “Everyone thinks that if you just throw another dollar at something everything will be OK, but that isn’t the case. It just jumps the cost up.”
Furthermore, foreign exports are declining because countries can purchase wood for cheaper in countries with fewer regulations. Ehinger notes that Oregon used to ship almost 3 billion board ft. to Japan per year in 1990, but now only exports about 500 million board ft.
The people left in charge at the U.S. Forest Service after Clinton’s budget cuts merely worsen the situation. “They stripped down most of the knowledgeable people in the agency with early retirement plans and effectively cut off timber sales in the 90’s,” noted Ehinger. “Now everybody’s an –ologist of some kind. They have very few foresters who know how to put together a timber sale.”
Since 1989, 424 mills have closed in the Pacific Northwest alone, causing approximately 11,000 loggers to lose their jobs.
“If you don’t have enough timber to keep a mill going, it disappears,” Ehinger added. Rural logging communities are dying out, and many of them, especially in the Pacific Northwest “are 100 miles from nowhere.” With the rising costs of fuel, younger employees are even less inclined to commute long distances in areas where perpetual harvests are plagued by uncertainty.
“Feds don’t understand that if a guy is going to make an investment, he has to have a certain volume,” added Ehinger. Such a mentality exists from the standpoint of both proprietor and prospective employee. The younger workforce expects a degree of instant gratification, and thus are motivated to seek employment in urban and suburban settings, far away from decrepit and nearly forgotten logging towns. Meanwhile, the government wastes money to analyze problems in logging communities, but bureaucrats are the only ones with jobs, said Ehinger.
An alternative that may draw a younger workforce is utilizing more comprehensive training programs at vocational schools and community colleges.
Caterpillar offers potential machinery operators valuable seat time at its ForestPro Training Center near Auburn University. Students can participate in some weeklong Operator Training classes to learn the basics of skidders and knuckle booms. Prospective operators can also attend Advanced Operator Training to attain more specialized training on one particular piece of machinery. “Those are the things that are going to help some of these loggers find ways to make these jobs desirable,” said Jones of Caterpillar’s ForestPro Training Center, “I think you’ll see more programs like that in the future.
In many places around the country, it’s hard to get any sort of operator or vocational training unless you’re already on the job. Jones also said that some of the community colleges in Alabama tried various vocational training programs, but they lacked sufficient equipment with which to train students. “Somebody’s got to take the risk of having updated equipment that’s actually used in the field today, not some old used stuff from 10-15 years ago,” Jones observed.
Dructor gave a high opinion of those programs, because the combination of class time and field experience gives both employer and employee insight as to whether or not the employee will excel in the logging business. “[Contractors] can find out real quick whether or not that person wants to stay with that profession or do something else,” said Dructor. “They don’t waste a lot of their money out in the field trying to train somebody.”
Associated Oregon Loggers is also developing programs aimed at high school and vocational school students to rekindle youth interest in the logging profession by working with rural community colleges. Careful planning and a certain amount of unquantifiable student commitment are prerequisites for success, though.
“They tried that [in Maine] and it did not work,” said Brawders of community college programs. “They put 12 young people through the program about a year and a half ago, and there is not one left in the woods now, and they spent a lot of money on it.” Instead, she advocated mentoring programs. “It’s much more efficient when a company is able to take on a young person within the company, and work them for a six to eight month period, sort of like an apprenticeship,” she said. “That’s more real than sitting in a classroom.”
Brawders also said that community colleges have difficulty finding reliable teachers for the courses. “Some of those people don’t even know trees,” she chided. “They couldn’t tell a maple tree from a pine tree. [Instructors] might be really good at manual dexterity, but it’s not going to get us anywhere if they don’t know their trees.”
Some of the certification requirements have programs specifically about forest management, Silvaculture, OSHA, and first-aid, from a regulatory standpoint. The courses are not designed to train people for the industry, but rather to complement an employee’s skills.
“I don’t think there’s a huge surplus of trained guys right now,” admitted Virginia Loggers Association Executive Director Jim Mooney. Virginia is honing the Sharper Logger Program in conjunction with nationwide Sustainable Forest Initiatives. Some mills require the certification, while others “might pay a little bit of a bonus,” said Mooney.
Maine pioneered the Master Logger’s Certification Program, explained Bawders, in which a third-party certifies logging companies for safety awareness and sustainable forest management practices. “We created the standards and they go beyond just law,” she boasts. Maine currently has 124 companies certified through their program.
“Most loggers now are pretty much in a survival mode,” said Dructor. “There isn’t a whole lot of extra funds that can be spent on [logger certification] programs.” He explained that most states have a similar
certification program in place because more frequently their customers are beginning to require it of their loggers. However, clients aren’t willing to fork over the cash to pay for certifications. “They’re putting more costs on the contractors without any incentives,” Dructor added. Even after contractors complete a certification program, there is no guarantee that employees will receive competitive pay raises.
High school graduates are thoroughly indoctrinated into the pervasive, yet abstract culture of the American dream. The tenets of individual success built on stable foundations of familial infrastructure still ring true, but America’s economic landscape is changing to meet the needs of an expanded global market. More young adults are college-educated and conditioned to pursue entry-level management positions after graduation.
In many cases, those who do not attend college still have the luxury of seeking employment in service or vocational industries. However, “there’s no future if you can make at 25 years old what you’ll make at 50 years old,” said Allen of logging. Job security or benefits are expected along with decent starting wages, and unfortunately the repercussions are falling on the most rugged and necessary of traditional rural industries.
As the U.S. continues its current trend, the economy could eventually rely wholly on the service and financial industries. If this tendency doesn’t waver, the only things log skidders will be pushing up are daisies, and you can just imagine where the economy will be by then.