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Intermountain Logging Conference Review
Who Will Log for the Next Generation?
By Barbara Coyner
It was the classic version of the kid in the candy store as dozens from the timber industry drooled over the new logging equipment on display during the annual Intermountain Logging Conference in Spokane recently. Harvesters, excavators, processing heads, and other machinery lined the parking lot as loggers climbed into cabs and pored over specs.
For an industry that easily embraces new technology, there was plenty to consider as equipment vendors fielded questions. Ironically, the learning sessions indoors coincided, as logging contractors listened to speakers address the question... who will be driving that new equipment in the future?
“We have to get past the notion that there’s no future in the woods,” ILC President Bob Danielson said in his opening remarks. “The average age of loggers is now 55 to 60. We need to use experts to engage and train new employees.”
The conference featured a range of motivational experts and educators, but nobody hit the ball out of the park quite like two younger loggers who are now running their own outfits. T.C. Decker, a logger from Libby, Mont., noted, “We have to get young people involved and encourage, not discourage, people from coming into the business. This is not a desk job, and that is an advantage for some. It’s active and knowledge-based.”
Decker emphasized the challenges loggers face, from knowing environmental principles to how to handle high-tech machinery. “You have to think about how you might have to keep from disturbing the soil while pulling 6000 pounds uphill,” he said by way of example.
Decker also pointed out that young people are savvy about emerging technologies and can learn quickly, making them good candidates for working in the woods. “The older generation has to pass down knowledge but also be willing to yield to the new generation and adapt. We have to figure out how to keep younger people around, teach them and not just cut them loose. Keep them engaged, ask questions. After they’ve got it figured out, you have to throw them to the wolves.” Decker also reminded his audience that decent pay is important, as is having a business plan for transitioning to new ownership.
Missoula logging contractor Ben Smith carried a similar message, reminding his listeners, “You can teach a guy how to log, but you can’t teach him how to work hard.” In too many instances, other forestry-linked professions don’t teach the realities of logging, he said, noting, “Logging isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. Wages can’t always compete with the oil field or mining, and there might be long hours away from home. You can’t let your guys get bored.”
Repairing Negative Images
Prominent rural activist and past logger Bruce Vincent related a first-hand account of his parents being advised by his school counselor not to let their son go into logging, but rather follow a college path more in line with his high test scores. He did go into logging despite the advice, although the family logging business eventually folded.
Vincent’s son Chas (a state senator from Libby) took an alternate path into politics, although he too would have preferred to be part of a family logging business. The father-son pair recapped the long hard fight to overcome negative images in logging, the ineffective activism of the past, and legislation that constantly works against the timber industry. Vincent calls it a collision of visions, but today he sees a new situation in which urban people are falling in love with rural areas and feeling nostalgic for the rural lifestyle. That offers opportunity, he said.
Additionally, as rural landscapes burn due to neglect, and as people study carbon sequestration that comes with healthy forests, some are moving away from the rabid environmentalism that birthed the conflict industry. “Our forests are being protected to death,” Vincent said. “We’ve had 50 years of Bambi and Disney movies in which wolves were raising rabbits.”
New Attitudes & Education
Despite the negative images of past logging, he sees new attitudes in the country. He also sees new alliances with farming, mining, and ranching as rural people try to preserve their communities.
Conference speakers offered several positive developments on the education front, with one new grant-funded vo-tech program in Coeur d’Alene training 116 students last year in related fields such as trucking and chip hauling.
Speakers constantly stressed the need to reach out to community colleges, equipment dealers, and experienced loggers as new people enter the profession and need hands-on training.
Some suggested that the new social media avenues also get the word out on employment opportunities, with some people successfully using sites such as Craigslist for recruitment. However, speaker Ron Nilson of Ground Force Equipment said much more should be done to train future workers. When he needed 50 welders at one of his plants, he found that the local college was instead cutting out vocational training in favor of academics. “There’s this premise that manufacturing is dying,” he said. “Where is the vocational education? The demand is there, but there is no training. We need to change our educational system.”
Despite the uphill climb to train more workers for the timber industry, it was clear at the conference that there are still a number of logging families passing the torch to the younger set. As attendees checked out the various indoor and outdoor displays, there was a sense that the new generation is eager to show what it can do.
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