Where have all the loggers gone?

my view sigThe 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.

back to newsletterWe 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.