Addressing the LaborShortage in the GeorgiaLogging Industry By John Casey
Even as recession fears persisted this year, national employment numbers continued to rise, with the unemployment rate touching all-time lows. In May, Georgia saw the lowest unemployment rate in state history as it dipped just under 3%.
While the American worker is flush with opportunity, employers are finding themselves at a loss to fill much-needed roles. There are more than two jobs available per every unemployed person in the U.S. Not only is there less available labor, but it’s more expensive. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, hourly wages have increased by $3.
National employment numbers show that the workforce is continuing to grow older, with more and more workers age 60 and over choosing to continue to work rather than retire. At the other end of the scale, the number of workers under the age of 25 remains relatively unchanged. Looking at forestry in particular, more than 50% of the workforce is over 45 years old, compared to less than 15% between the ages of 25 and 34.
The Georgia forestry workforce has been continuously shrinking, but thanks to technology and advancements in industrial efficiency, production remains relatively constant. In the late 1990s, the state forestry industry was harvesting 48 million green tons with over 6,000 employees at a rate of roughly four tons per man hour. In 2021, the state industry was able to do that same amount of work with around 4,500 employees and a nearly doubled rate of 6.5 tons per man hour. While the total number of employees in the state forestry industry has steadily declined, the problem isn’t a matter of dissatisfaction or quitting the industry, but rather aging out, said Rebecca Hunt, a public service faculty member at the Carl Vinson Institute for Government at the University of Georgia.
“Historically, turnover in logging occupations has been relatively low at about 8%, but according to the Georgia Department of Labor projections, it’s expected to increase to over 15% in the next few years. When we look at the turnover data, we see that the older workforce has been a really stable source of labor with low turnover rates, but now they are aging out and leaving a lot of younger workers who have higher turnover rates when it comes to this industry,” said Hunt. “I know this may sound a little discouraging, but I do have good news. Quits have significantly decreased in the last 30 years, likely a combination of the shrinking workforce and potentially due to technology investments that have made loggers’ jobs a little easier and provided amenities like air-conditioned cabs.
air-conditioned cabs.” The hole in available labor is proving to be a challenge for the Georgia forestry industry, but it’s not a challenge that can’t be overcome.
“Employees are making decisions based on culture, based on pay, based on if they’re able to work from home. That’s something that a lot of forestry jobs don’t have going for them that folks are looking for. But there are ways that we can combat this, ways that we can think about this because a lot of people are kind of shuffling around right now and we can find ways to take that to our advantage,” said Hunt at the Georgia Forestry Association Annual Conference. “We know there are still a number of Georgians who are on the sidelines or have barriers to work and could be reengaged for the right incentives. This is important, especially as we think about our young workers. For the long-time health of the industry, it’s important to focus on recruitment of that younger worker.”
Training the Next Generation of Forestry Professionals If you were to ask a classroom of high school students about their career ambitions, you’re almost guaranteed to hear doctor, lawyer and even astronaut— but how often do you hear logger? Unfortunately, not often enough, which is why state education leaders are leading a charge to popularize forestry and agriculture careers through early education, said Billy Hughes, agricultural education program manager at theGeorgia Department of Education.
“Georgia is very unique. We are the only state in the nation with a true kindergarten-through-adult education model for agricultural education. These teachers are teaching lessons that cover habitat, needs and preferences for native wildlife. They’re talking about what makes wildlife native versus invasive. How production agriculture and commercial industries affect natural resources. The importance of clean water and good soil management. And they’re also doing simple things like tree identification and wildlife identification. Again, piquing the interest. Showing students that there is a viable career out there in the industry,” said Hughes.
The efforts to increase youth interest in forestry and agriculture appear to be paying off, with numbers showing that thousands of students are coming out of these programs primed to join the workforce. In Georgia, there are 145 schools teaching at least one forestry pathway and in just the last year, over 3,000 students participated in a forestry-related class.
Beyond the classroom, state education officials are encouraging clubs and events to build young forestry professional groups that give students the opportunities to learn and grow in the field. Today, there are more than 60 Young Farmers groups in the state alone. “I hear a lot of people [say] that you need not only for [young professionals]to have technical skills. You need them to have leadership skills. You need them to have team building skills. You need them to have communication skills. And those are all the things that [they are taught] if they participate in the Future Farmers of America, the leadership component to the agriculture education program,” said Hughes. “Across the state we have eight different career development events that students can participate in in the forestry-laden industry. From forestry Career Development Events, which is a four-man team, to forestry field day (which most of you are familiar with), that’s either a 10-or 11-man team. Land judging, ENR, wildlife agriculture mechanics, equipment operations and all of the Leadership Development Events out there such as the sales, event speaking and job interviews.
Education efforts don’t stop after high school — with 22 colleges and 88 campuses in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), students across the state have access to local secondary education opportunities with advanced programs in forestry and agriculture, and more young people are starting to take notice, according to Greg Dozier, commissioner of TCSG.
“When you look at our student, our average student is 26 years old. Why is that important? Just a few years ago, the average age of our student was 36 years,” said Dozier. “Twenty-six is a big reduction. And part of that is truly the counselors in the high school. It’s young people realizing the value of a skill.”
With more and more young people becoming involved in forestry education, hopes are growing that the labor shortage won’t only be resolved for now, but put behind us for good with a consistent pipeline of young, enthusiastic forestry professionals entering the workforce. ■
John Casey is a strategic communications consultant with a primary focus on journalism, politics and public policy.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com