The major topic of discussion February 20 at Gov. Paul LePage’s roundtable with MFPC members might strike some as surprising. It wasn’t manufacturing, bills or even taxes. It was how to reach Maine’s young people.
“I thought the meeting went well – very positive and candid,” said MFPC Vice President Jim Contino of Verso. “We probably talked about logging labor and education systems more than any other single topic.
The governor began by saying that swing to a Democratic majority in the Legislature in November election meant accomplishing anything through legislation would be very difficult.
“There are things we can do by policy,” he said. “I am very concerned about energy costs, transportation, education and just overall red tape. The red tape we can take care of. Energy is the major issue, the one we hear about most.”
Energy was probably the second most talked about issue, with several members talking about the rising cost of gasoline.
“Energy – at the pump—is probably the single biggest unknown for us,” said Mike Beardsley of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.
Beardsley and other members also brought up contracts to harvest on state-owned land. The problem, they told the governor, is bids only allow work in the three months of winter. Ten months would be better and if the contracts were for five years, they said, it would help companies invest in equipment.
“It’s a very small window,” said Eric Dumond of Reenergy. “Everyone wants their wood cut in the winter.”
The governor listened carefully. “I am very, very interested in that,” he said. “We are looking at our state-owned land. The state-owned land has to be part of the revenue stream.
LePage got a big laugh when he added, “I appreciate what you said and I will try to influence Mr. Denico. (Doug Denico, director of the Maine Forest Service).”
Several members praised the Maine Forest Service, including Jerry Poulin of Wagner, who said, “They’re always there for anything we need.”
But members kept turning back to their concern about how to recruit more young people into the industry.
Dumond kicked off the discussion by telling the governor, “I’ve been in the forest products industry for 35 years. We need to look at how to get younger people to come in. We need to plant the seed to get young kids interested in our industry.”
The group talked about internships, apprenticeships, co-op education and whether the law that restricts students younger than 18 from job sites might be changed.
“If the MFPC can tackle one issue,” Poulin said, “ in my mind it is the recruitment and training of new employees. As the economy improves I feel the lack of trained forestry employees will become a major bottleneck in the wood supply chain for landowners and mills in Maine.”
But Jim Nichols of Nichols Logging told of spending $5,000 on a co-op program for a person who only lasted a few months on the job. He thought many young people just don’t know what they want to do and that “the training they need is not what they’re getting (in tech schools).”
The governor spoke strongly in favor of internships, apprenticeships and more technical education at the community colleges. He offered to work with MFPC and said there might be grant money available to help create a better career path into the industry.
“The technical schools are a really great, untapped resource,” LePage said. “In Maine, we’ve had the attitude that every kid is going to go to college.”
One common complaint from members was about the bad image of the industry projected by guidance counselors and others. Nichols urged the industry to unite to change that image.
“Perception is reality,” he said. “We’ve to face that. The mills, the contractors and the landowners have got to work together to get some kids into the industry.”
The governor also commented on:
- The Tree Growth Tax Program: “There are guys in the Legislature who want to tinker with the Tree Growth law and I’ll tell you that is D.O.A.”
- Taxes: “Lowering taxes in the next two years will be impossible, but I plan to run again.” But he added, “Taxes, I can assure you, are not going up.”
- His plan to suspend revenue-sharing: It has “zero chance of passing …We all want local control, but local control is very expensive. Don’t call it revenue-sharing, call it local control costs. You want local control, pay for it.”
After the meeting, there were many favorable comments from members who appreciated the governor’s continuing support of the forest products industry and found the roundtable “informative” and “productive,” and the governor “attentive and interested.”
“I very much enjoyed the opportunity to hear Gov. LaPage’s take on our issues,” Poulin said. “I am encouraged the governor is willing to take on the challenges facing our industry.”
The whole industry wrings its hands, in Maine and across the nation. The story is the same, the older generation is retiring and new entrants to the business are scarce as crosscut saws. Luckily, as the logging force gets smaller productivity gains have picked up much of the slack. But that luck won’t last forever, it’s finite and every mill owner or manager has to ask themselves daily, “How am I going to log my mill when the rest retire? What’s my plan”? It’s true, wood grows on trees — but it doesn’t move to the mill by photosynthesis.
There are lots of reasons for the scarcity of new entrants — interest, pay, skills, difficulty developing skills, openings, proximity to where young folks live and the perspective on whether logging is a “neat profession” to be in — and more. And most of the barriers are true.
Industry has looked at this demographic for at least 40 years and made valiant attempts with initiatives to attract new entrants. Unfortunately few have worked appreciably.
The cost of entry into logging is huge, no more pickup, chain saw and maybe a skidder. The machinery used in today’s logging is complex, brand diverse and expensive, making it even harder to learn. Where do you go to learn and who will let an inexperienced person operate quarter million dollar and more machines.
Schools of different levels, from high school to advanced degree, don’t have the capitalization themselves to keep up with the latest machinery. In many cases they depend on hand-me-down machines that are not the current technology and, like a used truck, expensive to maintain. If they were still efficient, loggers wouldn’t have traded them.
Until many guidance counselors started believing you had to go to college to get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, skilled trades were taught on the job through apprenticeship programs supported by state criteria, review and state certification of apprenticeship completion. As an example, many states have apprentice programs for machinists and tool makers. In some cases it is the trade itself that certifies, a welder is certified by American Welding Society after demonstrating proficiency.
We should rethink bringing the apprentice model back — engaging landowners, mill management and logging contractors who will support an apprenticeship program. The state’s role would be to put teeth into the program, develop standards, grading, review and certification. And oh yes, it is not unreasonable to think that some state subsidy for apprentices will be necessary — luckily, it is usually cheaper than unemployment payments.
It’s also not unreasonable to repeal Maine laws designed to discourage Canadian loggers when no one has derived a solution on how to replace those loggers. Canadians have been a part of Maine’s logging force and logging culture since we began logging in the north woods. We have few domestic entrants into the job market, an impending shortage, and we tell those still willing to do the work, “Don’t come here.” Go figure!
We do have two big hurdles: showing that the profession is rewarding and appreciated by society, and geographic proximity to the job site from population centers. Cable TV’s American Logger has shown that young people are really interested in what goes on in the woods. There is a fascination with hard work and “proving yourself.” Other more serious demonstrations can show what the job is like, how to start out and try it, what skills it calls for, trading the Play Station skills for real joystick skills and maybe seeing the harvester as akin to flying a drone. Can we even think about operating a harvester in Northern Maine remotely from an office near Paul Bunyan’s statue in Bangor?
What is left to overcome is how new entrants, making starting pay as apprentices, can afford the time and money to travel to remote job sites every day. Years ago we did that with logging camps but the cost of running the camps, as well as workers wanting to be home at night, caused their demise. I believe proximity is the most difficult challenge, but even today, Canadians and Americans are going to the oil fields of Alberta and North Dakota for jobs. We have to make the opportunities attractive and entry hurdles reasonable.
Gerry Lavigne, Maine’s state deer biologist for three decades, discusses areas, especially in northern Maine, where there is deer habitat, but no deer. For more of Lavigne’s views on the Maine deer herd visit the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s Deer Recovery section or read: Northern Maine deer ecology
Other information: The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife presented the its Plan to Increase Maine’s Northern, Eastern and Western Deer Herd, including white tailed deer population goals and efforts to create a five-year benchmarking system on Jan. 25th, 2012.
People keep talking about the “dying” forest products industry, but what they don’t realize is we’re doing just the opposite. We’re changing. You have to. You either change or you die.
When I went to work in the Rumford mill one summer to pay for college, there were five people on a paper machine that had been around for 50 years. I was the spare, so I just filled in on jobs. I trained for the second most complicated job in one day – one day!
One of my friends made $5,000 in his summer mill job, so when they offered him a fulltime job, he took it. I also thought long and hard about not going back to college. It wasn’t an easy decision for someone who came from a pretty modest upbringing to pass on what was then big money for unknown earnings later.
I was in grammar school when my dad became disabled and died a few years later. My mom went to work at an insurance office. There were five of us at home, so we all worked. I had a paper route, but I couldn’t lug more than 30 papers because the bag was too heavy for me. It would drag on the ground and my mom had to keep repairing it.
In high school, I worked 30 or 40 hours a week at the supermarket and I didn’t do very well in school. But my older brother, who had two kids, went back to school to become an accountant. So I looked at what he was making, saved up a couple of thousand bucks and went off to Husson College with a lot of help from the school.
The summer I worked at the mill, I had three years to go – three years to pay for – so you can imagine how tempting those mill wages were, but my mom convinced me to go back to college. When I graduated, I made $8,000 a year and the guys I went to high school with were making three times as much in the mill. But 10 years ago, the Rumford mill downsized and several of my friends lost their jobs.
I also took a long-term view of life when I chose Prentiss & Carlisle in 1987. I had three job offers and I picked this one, even though it wasn’t the top money and top benefits. I looked at the future and the people involved and I just knew this was the best place to be.
At the time, we only had 24 or 25 employees. The Carlisles had never really hired someone for a key position from outside the company but they hired me as their financial guy. I am less conservative than the Carlisles, but they’ve been great. They gave me plenty of rope – I could have hung myself or make them a nice bow – and luckily most of the stuff worked out all right. We pushed the envelope. The entire staff at P&C works very hard and we’ve got a great team. We’re more profitable, we’re way bigger and we have a lot more timberland. We’re now up to almost 100 employees.
So I believe that we should not only expect change, but we should actively search for ways to change — wisely. Most of the mills we are associated with sell products that are global commodities. Therefore, we are tied to a world whose population is getting bigger. The demand for fiber is increasing. The ability of Maine to match markets with resource is going to be the key. We have to be able to look at where the demand is in the world and adjust to it.
The worst thing we can do is let the government steer us in a direction they think markets are going. We’ve got to let the market system drive it. Some of the markets we know and love may not be the markets of the future but we should be very careful before we give up old friends for new ones. But there is an increasing demand and we are in a good position to meet it.
- The demand for fluff pulp – toilet tissue, facial tissue and paper towels – is only going to increase. That needle only has to move a little bit when you have 5 billion people in China, or Middle East or some of these developing countries. And if we can match up with that, we should be perfectly fine.
- Housing starts are coming back. Private housing starts in October were 41.9 percent higher than in October 2011.
- The price of dimension lumber is coming up.
- We produce some of the best oriented strand board in the country.
- We have a diversity of species.
- We have a diversity of markets. We sell to 100 different mills – a hundred different mills! In New York, Wisconsin, Michigan or Canada, we deal with six mills, eight mills, 12 mills.
I know we’ve had some tough years, but right now the most important thing to understand is that none of us can be successful if one of us in not successful.
Let me tell you where the key is. We produce more pulp than Wisconsin. What’s Wisconsin noted for? It’s the number one paper-producer in the country. Why are we producing more pulp and they’re producing more paper? Because we’re selling our pulp. That’s not bad, because we currently can’t consume all the pulp. But we’re not taking it the next step in the value chain. Pulp sells for $1,000 a ton. Paper or tissue paper or any of those things when you put them in a nice fancy cardboard box sells for a lot more than that on a per ton basis.
The further up the value chain we are, the more money comes in the state and the more jobs there are. The more the mills can pay for the wood, the more the contractor can get paid. So we’ve got to go up the value chain.
If you back up and look at it from 25,000 feet or 50,000 feet, it really isn’t that complicated. We are going to be facing change constantly. The unions have changed. The pulp and tissue mills have changed — I couldn’t be backtender today on a paper machine. The players who owned the mills have changed. So what? We’re evolving. Change is constant and we’re willing to change. Yes, we’ll go head to head with the Chinese. We’ll go head to head with anybody.
Manufacturing appears to have great potential, excellent job growth and momentum over next five years in Aroostook County. But may not be enough workers, Robert P. Clark, executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission told the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce & Economic Future. To see his presentation, click on. Northern Maine Development presentation
MFPC’s annual legislative reception was crowded with legislators, state officials and members Feb. 7 and they were talking about everything from the Agriculture-Conservation merger to the SFI flume.
“It was a great success and well-attended,” said Executive Director Patrick Strauch. “It was a good opportunity for both members and legislators to get to know each other.”
U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, toured nine paper mills and four suppliers across the state the week of Jan. 28. After he visited the Twin Rivers Paper’s Madawaska mill Thursday, the St. John Valley Times reported, Michaud commented that among the concerns he has heard on his tour are new federal environmental regulations, reliable rail service and worker training. The Waterville Sentinel covered Michaud’s tour Monday of the Madison mill and the Lewiston Sun Journal reported on his visit to the NewPage mill in Rumford on Tuesday. Michaud is soliciting feedback from Maine residents about how the industry affects them.
The MFPC, however, was fortunate to have its own correspondent to cover the tour — Board Member Peter Triandafillou of Huber Resources. His report follows.
After leaving Great Northern Paper, Congressman Michaud stopped by to get a brief woods tour and a tour of Huber’s log yard near Millinocket.
The woods tour was on Prentiss and Carlisle and Huber land. The tour took us through a parcel that P&C harvested a few years ago. Mike Treat from P&C was on hand to describe the excellent work they’ve done there.
We then took a look at Huber’s current operation on the adjacent property. Ted Shina and Trevor London were there for Huber.
Mike was interested in our concerns, including the forest road point source pollution ruling, the Endangered Species Act, the importance of our relationship with our Canadian trading partners, and Maine specific issues.
We then took Mike on a brief tour of the log yard, showing him the sorting merchandizing and shipping of forest products by truck and rail to numerous customers.
After that Mike sat down with Marcia McKeague, Mark Doty, Ben Carlisle, Patrick Strauch and myself to discuss forestry and landowner issues. It was a good conversation, and we covered a lot of topics, including the proposed national park.
When MFPC’s Manufacturing Committee sat down with Gov. Paul LePage last fall, it felt very much like sitting down at the table and discussing business with a businessman.
“We had a very good meeting with the Governor,” said Luke Brochu, chairman of our Manufacturing Committee. “He heard us out on our issues and I went away feeling that he would support us if and when we need him.”
The committee’s report – Maine Sawmills Recommendations to Strengthen Maine’s Competitive Position – and the meeting were in response to the governor’s request for ideas to make Maine’s sawmill industry stronger.
Committee members met at 1 p.m. to edit a sawmill report summary of their report for the 3 p.m. meeting in the governor’s Cabinet Room on Oct. 15. The report was completed last December, but the committee members know the issues — they all live the issues –so all they needed was to agree on their approach.
There were some differences of opinion, a lot of decision-making and discussion, but everybody knew we had a tight timeline and they were able to get through it efficiently.
The meeting itself was very much a high-powered event. In addition to Gov. LePage, it was attended by Commissioner George Gervais of the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD); Commissioner Walt Whitcomb of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Rosaire Pelletier, DECD’s specialist on the forest products industry; John Butera, senior economic advisor to the governor, and Carlisle McLean, the governor’s legal counsel and senior natural resources policy advisor.
“The governor showed us how much importance he places on our industry by the people he had there representing his administration,” said Jim Robbins Sr. of Robbins Lumber.
We had a powerful group of people there as well (see list of attendees). The governor knew he was dealing with a credible group. We were not rushed; we had more than an hour of his time.
With the governor at the head of the table, Brochu ran the meeting and he did a masterful job. He started by thanking Gov. LePage for his efforts to:
- Streamline regulations
- Lower tax rates
- Reform LURC
- Support a forest products position at DECD
- Discuss with us ways to improve conditions for Maine’s forest products industry.
Brochu was very diplomatic, kept the conversation going and handed off to the various people we had delegated to speak on specific issues. And everybody really had a chance to talk.
We brought up many different issues – at one point we wondered if there were too many. But the governor was very responsive, seemed to understand each issue and told us about what his administration was doing. He took notes, seemed very interested and came up with ideas and follow-up suggestions.
I think it was clear to everyone attending that the governor certainly understands our business and actually has direct experience working in our field.
“I thought that the meeting was very productive,” Robbins said. “He certainly impressed us that he wants to help us and understands our industry. “
We went in with energy costs as our top issue. It’s a complicated subject and there was some strong discussion about it, but it was a good business discussion.
The governor made it clear that we needed to be involved in the discussion about power costs and his plan to bring more hydropower into the region. It’s also was clear that we need to work on our collective policy platform on energy. We must balance the opportunities for diversification of our industries with biomass power markets and the overall cost to the state and manufacturers for support of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).
He was clearly focused on lower energy costs for Maine manufacturers. We had a good discussion about the interdependence of sawmills to markets for sawdust, biomass from bark and paper mill chips from slab wood.
“The governor made it very clear that he wants some help from us to help him lobby for bills to get our power costs down and to eliminate the 100 KW cap on what is considered green energy from hydro,” Robbins said. “I think we definitely need to help him on this.”
We also discussed the need to find qualified workers for manufacturing occupations. The modernization of our facilities has reduced the total number of employees, but production has dramatically increased. An aging work force is also creating opportunities for young workers to build careers in the forest industry.
The governor reiterated his belief that we need to do more to build educational and training opportunities for manufacturing workers. Mill owners expressed concern about the opportunities and training in their communities and the need to build stronger communities with good jobs. These concerns dovetailed with the governor’s desire to build more training capacity through our education systems and the members offered to help with this agenda.
He also said he and his staff want to help if any members want to bring more business to Maine through expansion of their facilities or by bringing new manufacturers to town.
We left the meeting with several next steps in different areas:
- We are going to talk about energy issues with Ken Fletcher, director of the Governor’s Energy Office.
- We’ll be working with DECD on some of the projects we’ve talked about initiating.
- The governor is going to pursue education initiatives that we need to support.
Thanks to meetings like this, we’re getting to know and appreciate the governor. He didn’t hold back any punches when he was concerned about something and while we were diplomatic, we pushed on some issues as well. He recognizes that we can provide opportunities in Maine. If we have ideas and want to move forward with them and we’re not getting where we need to go with government, he wants to know about it personally. That was a pretty strong statement on his part.
We’ll be working to compile our vision for Maine forest economy to help educate incoming legislators. With a supportive administration and a clear plan of action to build and strengthen Maine’s forest economy, there is an opportunity to establish a platform for the future that will help guide Maine policymakers.
“We as an industry need to move ahead as soon as possible while we still have a Governor in the Blaine House who really wants to help the forest industry,” Robbins said.