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.”