Help Wanted, Now Hiring: Workforce Shortages in the Forest Products Industry
HELP WANTED, NOW HIRING. These are familiar refrains across the country and ones that permeate nearly every sector of the economy. Despite being identified as one of the “happiest, least stressful, and most meaningful career” options available (Van Dam, 2023), the forest industry has not been spared from workforce shortages and desperately needs an influx of skilled foresters, technicians, loggers, truck drivers, and laborers. The demand is particularly pressing in the forest operations (i.e., logging and transportation) and manufacturing sectors. Labor data and surveys of these sectors indicate not only an aging workforce but a decline in the number of operations, particularly smaller operations, and greater difficulty in attracting and retaining a skilled workforce.
Fortunately, increased mechanization and/or improved technologies have served to limit the impact of the skilled workforce shortage temporarily, but it comes with added baggage in that it requires a significant amount of technical training to bring employees up to speed. However, this modifying effect may be short-lived as the current cohort of experienced employees that comprise the bulk of the workforce age out of the labor pool and take with them decades of accumulated knowledge and skill. As evidence, an alarming trend seen in many parts of the country is a widening disparity between the number of people leaving the forest industry and the number of people recruited to fill the vacancies. Reversing this trend, particularly in rural communities that are home to many of these facilities and operations, will require innovative approaches to workforce recruitment and development and the collective support of the forestry and forest products industries to increase the visibility of available career opportunities and the development of sustainable education and training programs aligned with our high demand career pathways.
As a first step toward providing a framework to address the recruitment and development issue, ten people representing forest industry workforce development programs in six states gathered in Duluth, MN, on October 19, 2023, for a forest operations training summit, co-sponsored by the Forest Resources Association, to discuss their respective organizations’ efforts in workforce recruitment and training. Representation included:
- Minnesota Forest Industries
- Northern Arizona University
- Shasta College – California
- University of Idaho
- Future Natural Resources Leaders – Oregon
- University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point
Owing to the relatively short planning window, representatives from Northern Maine Community College, ForestryWorks (Alabama), and the University of Arkansas-Monticello could not participate but expressed a keen interest in being part of future discussions.
The objective of this first summit was for each organization to provide an overview of their respective programs with the intent to share critical information relative to recruitment strategies, training curriculum, obstacles associated with its development and implementation, funding mechanisms, and program sustainability. Key takeaways from these discussions included:
- The training curriculum of each program appropriately reflected regional industries and needs but shared common focal points of emphasis: training opportunities on equipment used in professional operations, safety, equipment maintenance, chainsaw operation and hand-felling, and transportation.
- Unique curriculum included woods road maintenance, industrial sawmill operation and maintenance, kiln operations, and an applied curriculum for high schools.
- Recruitment efforts need to be diversified, spanning the education cycle and the inclusion of traditional (i.e., job centers) and non-traditional (i.e., veterans, justice-impacted individuals) venues.
- Recruitment messaging surrounding career opportunities and training programs must resonate with the audience (i.e., young people and their parents/guardians).
- One size/message will not appeal to all audiences.
- Training program development and start-up capital were typically funded through fixed-term grants from either the respective states or the federal government.
- Equipment manufacturers provided cost-shares toward the purchase of large equipment in several programs.
- Equipment/capital investments and annual operating costs, including personnel, for the individual training programs are extremely high and typically exceed the revenue potential that can be generated through a cost recovery only fee structure (i.e., tuition/participation fees).
- Dedicated personnel (full-time) are critical to programmatic success.
- Oversight of field operations and equipment upkeep and maintenance.
- Sales from timber harvests support operations in several programs.
- A Forest Operations Training Program (FOTP) cost analysis tool is being developed that evaluates the cost of operation relative to proposed fee structures.
- Financial support from the forest products industry is needed.
- Dedicated personnel (full-time) are critical to programmatic success.
- There is a strong desire of those in attendance to formalize discussions and the sharing of information through the creation of a national network of training program providers.
The last bullet is of particular importance in that it focuses on workforce recruitment and development on a national scale. A national network of training providers has the potential to leverage regional efforts into a larger framework of support, including financial, that could benefit all programs by providing a level of structural consistency that would be attractive to employers seeking to backfill positions or expand their existing operations with employees possessing a recognized set of skills.
Participants in the first summit were unanimously in support of continuing the conversations through a combination of annual online and in-person meetings that would move around the country. The tentative agenda is for the group to convene again via a digital meeting in early 2024 and then again in person in April 2024 at Shasta College in California. Recognizing the list of participating programs is far from complete, the group would like to extend an invitation to other programs across the county that are engaged in these training efforts to join in on the conversation. If you are interested or know of an organization that would find value in participating, please reach out to any of the following individuals:
Les Werner – Director, Wisconsin Forestry Center, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point
Blake Manley – Manager, Workforce Development, University of Idaho
Becky Roe – Director of Forest Health, Shasta College
Forest Operations Training Summit participants (L to R): Les Werner – UW Stevens Point, Jared Schroeder – UW Stevens Point, Blake Manley – University of Idaho, Rex Lowther – Oregon, Future Natural Resources Leaders, Brian Brashaw- USFS, Rick Horton – Minnesota Forest Industries, Tim O’Hara – Forest Resource Association, Zack Zweigler – Shasta College, Becky Roe – Shasta College.
Van Dam, A. (2025, January 06). The happiest, least stressful, most meaningful jobs in America. Washington Post. The happiest, least stressful, most meaningful jobs in America – The Washington Post