Industry Faces Logger Shortage: Educational and Training Programs Developed to Reach Younger Generation

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It’s no secret that logging is a dangerous occupation. In addition, the working conditions are not always exactly…lovely.

For those and other reasons, young adults don’t necessarily flock to jobs in logging and other positions in the forest products industry.

Workers in the industry are aging. For example, the average age of loggers in Missouri is about 58, noted Fred Smith, a staffer of the Missouri Forest Products Association. Loggers are being lost to attrition and retirement. In addition, as loggers age, production slows down, he suggested, impacting the flow of logs to mills and, further down the supply chain, the flow of wood to secondary businesses.

There is a “growing concern about the future,” acknowledged Ryan Rhodes, director of public relations and government affairs for the Forest Resources Association, due to the aging workforce and a lack of interest in or knowledge about jobs and careers in the forest products industry.

“Recruiting new workers to the logging industry can be difficult when competing with jobs that oftentimes pay more, have benefits, and the working environment is more hospitable, and the hours are reasonable,” observed Dan Dructor, executive director of the American Loggers Council.

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In recent interviews, both Rhodes and Dructor noted the difficulty of making generalizations about labor in the logging industry because of regional differences across the country.

One thing seems evident, however. Around the country, the forest products industry in some states is making a concerted effort to provide training to help prepare and recruit more, younger workers into the industry.

“I do not know exactly what the labor situation is in all of the regions around the country,” Dructor said via email. “We have not been flooded with requests for work or seen a lot of entry level applicants in the timber harvesting profession, and I would have to say that perhaps it is a more regional than national issue.”

“It would appear that, for the most part, production is keeping pace with current demand, with many areas still experiencing quotas at the mills,” he added.

Logging equipment manufacturers have introduced new technologies like joystick controls to improve efficiency and ergonomics, reducing fatigue for operators, Dructor noted. “We are all working together to try and strengthen…logging and to encourage new entries into the industry.”

“This is complex because each region has different workforce challenges,” Rhodes said via email.

Historically, it hasn’t been easy to recruit workers for logging, noted Rhodes. On top of that, young adults have exhibited a declining interest in manufacturing jobs.

Both men pointed to new or recent efforts by the industry to offer various types of training or educational programs geared to high school students or adults.

There are several equipment operator training schools around the country, noted Dructor, who singled out Maine and Missouri being the latest states to offer both classroom instruction and in-the-woods training.

Industry associations in some states are undertaking efforts to reach students who are not interested in pursuing a four-year education after high school, according to Rhodes. He noted an educational initiative by the Alabama Forestry Association.

Smith leads the brand-new Missouri Forest Products Association Logging School, which began its first 10-week session in October. It is designed for adults, not high school students. Six people registered for the first session, but one dropped out and two others left for jobs on hurricane clean-up projects.

The emphasis of the training program is to safely and sustainably harvest timber, said Smith. Training includes harvesting timber by manual felling with a chainsaw as well as operating logging equipment.

The school’s 10-week program likely will be conducted twice a year. It is conducted at a facility that is part of the University of Missouri school of natural resources, and students are housed in a dorm. Tuition is $5,000, but financial assistance is available.

The program in Maine also launched in the fall. It is a collaborative effort between the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine and three community colleges. As in Missouri, many logging equipment operators are approaching retirement age.

The 12-week program provides operator training on equipment used for 95% of the logging that is done in Maine, including feller bunchers, delimbers, skidders, and cut-to-length harvesters and forwarders.

The first group of eight students was required to pass a screening process that included thorough background checks, drug testing, physical and health standard evaluation, and interviews with current logging contractors.

Funding for the training program was provided by Maine Quality Centers with monies from public sources and a 50% match from industry.

Another relatively new training program for logging equipment operators exists in North Carolina. The North Carolina Association of Professional Loggers, now called the Carolina Loggers Association, launched the program in 2014. Doug Duncan, the association’s former executive director, resigned his post with the association to lead the Forest Equipment Operator Training School, which functions as a nonprofit organization.

The school conducts training in the region of Martinsville, Va., and Reidsville, N.C., because of the strong hardwood markets; the region is still home to furniture manufacturers. The school, normally held at different sites in North Carolina, draws students from both states.

The course is 6-8 weeks. The training is funded by the sale of wood products produced by the students and their instructors. Students receive a stipend. Some logging contractors pay for temporary lodging for an employee to attend the school.

The Alabama Forestry Association has an affiliated foundation, the Alabama Forestry Foundation, which sponsors the Black Belt Initiative. (The Black Belt region of Alabama is so named for the rich, black topsoil found in a belt of southern counties stretching the full width of the state.) The initiative is designed to increase awareness of job opportunities in forestry among high school students in the region; it seeks to encourage rural students to pursue education and training to qualify them for jobs with forest products businesses.

It began with a campaign to promote public awareness of Alabama’s forestry products industry and its job opportunities in 2011. The second year included meetings for foundation staff with local elected and education officials and with high school guidance counselors. Other activities have included workshops for both teachers and students.

Another program for high school students is underway at a local school division in Minong, Wisconsin. Max Ericson is a fourth-generation logger, and also is president of the Northwood School Board in Minong. He and his son-in-law, Jeff Daleiden, brainstormed ideas in early 2016 about how to get students to consider working in the forest products industry. With Brad Kildow, a retired state forester and associate professor of silviculture at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the three developed a draft forestry technician syllabus for consideration by the Northwood School Board.

The program was approved by the school board, and five students enrolled and began classes in January of this year. The curriculum includes classroom instruction and hands-on training in the field. The second semester began in the fall.

Both the American Loggers Council and the Forest Resources Association support the Future Logging Careers Act. The legislation would allow 16- and 17-year-old children of logging contractors to work in the woods under parental supervision.

The Forest Resources Association also has a program in place to help recruit and train veterans for jobs in the forest products industry.