Workforce sustainability a concern across the forestry industry
By: Brady Hummel October 18, 2019
Photography by Stephen B. Morton
Forestry jobs are still in high demand, but there are concerns murmured by many in the industry about whether there will be enough young professionals interested in starting a career in forestry to meet that demand in the coming decades.
According to the Georgia Forestry Commission's 2017 Economic Benefits of the Forest Industry in Georgia report,¹ there were 53,933 total direct employees in the forestry industry in Georgia in 2017, with pulp and paper products, building, and forest management and logging accounting for two-thirds of the workforce. Total employment in the industry has consistently grown year-on-year since 2010, but roughly 21,000 jobs were lost between 2007 and 2010 as a result of the Great Recession.² And wages and salaries have outpaced where they were pre-recession, with a $71,127 average across the industry.³
Yet that broad industry growth isn't necessarily answering the workforce development challenges many throughout the supply chain are feeling. "Across the country, our members are telling us they are having trouble finding enough people to fill critical positions - in the woods, on the road, and in the mill," said Deb Hawkinson, president of the Forest Resources Association (FRA). Finding qualified log truck drivers, in particular, will be challenging over the next decade, with many expected to retire within that time. "It's not entirely clear where the new logging workforce will come from," Hawkinson added.
J. Harry Sanders III, vice president of Sanders Logging, Inc. in Cochran, Georgia, is feeling that pressure first-hand. "Right now, I have two guys on my crew in their 70s and one in his 60s," Sanders said. He currently employs 20 people and brought on four new hires in the last two years to replace retiring crew members, some of whom have been with Sanders Logging for a quarter-century or longer. In finding new people, Sanders struggles with the push-pull of looking for candidates who have "both seat time and a willingness to learn."
Mechanization is also adding challenges by raising the barrier of entry into the industry. "Many jobs that a generation ago could be filled right out of high school now require additional training - either in dedicated training programs, through college coursework, or on-the-job mentorship," Hawkinson said. The marching pace of mechanization will continue, and workers will be expected not only to operate complex machines, but also to problem-solve in new and different ways. "As the industry continues to grow and evolve, workers will be asked to develop new skills in order to be successful," she said.
However, "mechanization is nothing new," said Dr. Dale Greene, dean of the University of Georgia (UGA) Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources. "It has been a part of our industry all along and it continues to be what helps maintain and expand our production and improve the quality of our products. For decades we have been shifting to fewer people with better skill sets as we mechanized."
Warnell aims to prepare the next generation of forestry professionals through a holistic education model. "Our curriculum is a mix of traditional classroom time along with experiential learning in field labs and during summer internships," Greene said. Experience in the field is invaluable, Greene added, as all forestry majors are required to participate in a three-week field course during their junior year. "We also focus on communication and analytical skills as much as we do on learning traditional forestry."
Sanders, a Warnell graduate, said that, while programs like UGA's are essential, he worries about whether new people are coming into the industry through education paths like that. "What scares me the most about this industry is that it looks impossible for someone to get into forestry unless they're born into it or have a lot of money," said Sanders, a third-generation logger himself. "There's no silver bullet solution. It's going to take a lot to fix the problem, and to get people into the industry, we have to get them young."
Greene sees a stark incentive for the industry to address the workforce development challenges it faces: "You change or you go out of business."