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The Logging Industry Infrastructure
By Shawn Keough, executive director for ALC – Idaho and Idaho State Senator for Legislative District 1
Quite a bit is being written today about ‘infrastructure’. As our nation grapples with continued economic turmoil, our elected officials suggest that spending on needed infrastructure projects like building roads and refurbishing schools would infuse money into the economy and put people without jobs back to work. Putting aside the politics of that discussion, the focus on a crumbling infrastructure is important. Just as it is important that our country’s roads, schools, and other basic infrastructure are sound, each successful industry sector continually addresses those same issues so that their businesses will succeed.
It would seem that within the logging industry, infrastructure needs should be analyzed and addressed so that logging businesses remain sound as the economy turns and demand for wood products climbs out of the doldrums to meet the continual rise in use by a world whose population continues to grow.
On the analysis side, there are reams of surveys, studies, and dissertations that focus on how logging businesses are holding up during these difficult economic times. In fact, before the latest downturn in the economy, research was conducted to ascertain how logging businesses were meeting the current harvesting demands and how they were positioning for the future.
State of the Industry
In 2004, the Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho supported and participated in a study by a University of Idaho Master’s student that conducted a structural assessment of the contract logging sector in the Inland Northwest. Concerns documented in that project included the difficulty of finding younger employees interested in coming into the logging profession. Other issues identified included the ability to work year around or at least a significant portion of the year, equipment availability and breakdown, and credit availability. In the year of this study, logging contractors averaged 51 years of age while 58 percent of their employees were found to be 40 years old or more.
In 2007 and 2008, the ALC-Idaho worked with the Intermountain Forest Association and the Idaho Forest Products Commission to conduct a survey and a follow-up Summit on Idaho Timber Workforce Issues. With consultant Dr. John J. Garland, P.E., work commenced to identify issues and solutions for attracting and retaining people in the timber industry, in particular the logging profession. The resulting report identified aging workers, compensation, and length of working seasons as some of the components that need to be addressed in order to keep the current logging contractor infrastructure in place while assuring it will exist in the future and not be lost as has happened in several states in the West.
Turning to a more recent analysis, Timber Harvesting’s 2011 Logging Business Survey reported that even taking into account the difficult economic times the entire timber industry continues to face, more loggers are likely to get out of the business, the majority of loggers remain in the 40 to 60 plus age ranges, and accessing capital to replace or upgrade equipment remain among the key challenges to a healthy logging infrastructure.
Typing the words ‘logging capacity studies’ in the search engine at Google.com brings up over 14 million listings.
We’ve studied enough, and the time is now to step into action.
Perusing advertisements for sawmill manufacturing jobs, lists of reasons for applying include: year-round work, health insurance benefits, paid vacations, and competitive wages. In many of these companies the average longevity of employees is high. Most mills in the intermountain west have re-tooled to become more efficient in their production. They’ve made investments in their infrastructure. They’ve had to in order to stay in business. While some mills have gone out of business and some are operating at much reduced levels struggling to survive, others are doing OK, and as noted in recent benchmarking studies, some mills are experiencing profits.
Yet turn to the logging contractor side. While some companies do offer health insurance benefits, most cannot afford to provide benefits for their employees and often do not have benefits for themselves either.
Year-round work? Logging has always been a seasonal endeavor, but surveys in Idaho show that steady work periods have shrunk substantially making it difficult to keep crews from finding other work and leaving logging altogether. Competitive wages? Anecdotally at the ALC-Idaho we’ve observed that economics have coupled with bidding processes to force compensation rates below the costs of operation. This cannot be sustained. Paid vacations? Well…that has rarely, if ever, been offered to those in the logging industry.
The logging and milling sides of our professional timber industry cannot exist without one another. It is time to dust off all the studies, all the surveys, and the results of all the workshops and put the solutions listed in each and every one of them to work. If we do not, we won’t have the logging infrastructure needed to get the logs out of the woods to be turned into the products that each and every person on this planet is using every day.
Shawn Keough is the executive director for the Associated Logging Contractors – Idaho. The ALC-Idaho is headquartered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and has 380 regular members and 100 associate members.
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