By Barbara Coyner
“This isn’t your daddy’s sawmill anymore,” has become a cliché comment among mill workers, given the technology currently at work in many Northwest lumber mills. Today, the proverbial “daddy” has either retired or is ready to retire, oftentimes leaving a major gap in experienced industry personnel — and valuable knowledge.
Who is the next millwright? Who knows how to administer air quality readings in the boiler? And who knows about the PLCs (programmable logic controls, the highly technical computer aspects that keep modern mills running)? In many mills, gone are the days of pulling on a green chain or standing for hours grading board quality. The new millworker must often be a techie, as well as one who is willing to keep learning new things.
Northern Idaho sawmills, long known for innovation, have once again stepped up to deal with an industry that keeps reinventing. This time, five wood products manufacturing companies have teamed up with North Idaho College (NIC) and Lewis-Clark State College (LCSC) to gather $482,582 in grant monies from the Idaho Department of Labor.
The workforce training grant, a combination of grant funds and industry cash and in-kind match, goes toward addressing skill gaps for high-wage and high-demand occupations in the sawmills. Direct training in boiler operation, industrial mechanics/millwright expertise, kiln operation, power fluids and hydraulics training, structured on the job training, and PLC training are the targeted areas.
Idaho Forest Group (IFG), Potlatch, Stimson Lumber, Empire Lumber, and Plummer Forest Products are all putting their money where their mouth is, representing a total of 11 mills. The industry match adds up to $141,883, with in-kind donations of $54,255, and an actual cash match of $87,627. Given an overall participant cost of $2,255.06, the trainee can expect good steady employment with wages from $15 to $25 and employee-assisted medical benefits, a nice trade-off for going back to school, albeit schooling that seldom involves endless hours at a desk.
Investment in the Future
“This is short-term noncredit training, less than a semester,” said Dr. Linda Stricklin, Workforce Training Director at LCSC’s north Lewiston campus.
Stricklin’s counterpart and the principal writer of the grant, Marie Price, functions as Workforce Training Director at the NIC Post Falls campus, which encompasses the NIC Wood Products Center of Excellence. The Center will be expanding as part of the grant.
“In round one of the grant, IFG, Potlatch, and Stimson saw a common need as a number of long-term employees were getting ready to retire,” said Price. “They wanted to pass the knowledge on and so they came to us, asking how they could set it up. This represented an opportunity to have a repository for curriculum, skill standards, certifications, and apprenticeships.”
The success of the first grant from 2014 to 2016 set up a chance for a new grant, with Empire Lumber and Plummer Forest Products joining the movement. All recognized that few younger people were wanting to work in a sawmill, and old-timers were quickly exiting. Thanks to the grant-funded program, there was opportunity for 35 participants in the Boiler Operator Registered Apprenticeship Program, plus further space for 30 participants in the Industrial Mechanic/Millwright Apprenticeship Program over the two-year grant period.
Additionally, the program furnishes space for 214 already-employed participants over the next two years, offering industry recognized credentials and job advancement. Overall, an estimated economic impact of up to $2,340,916 can be realized from the innovative partnership. This amounts to real dollars and real career security for real workers already in the timber industry, or those wanting to join.
As Marie Price steers the program into phase two of the grant initiatives, she notes that 22 individuals are already enrolled in the steam training, representing eight mills. Apprenticeship programs are all going forward as curriculums are enhanced or developed, using real-world guidance from the mills.
As employees such as 30-year-old Jeremy Lozano-Keays preside over multi-million-dollar computers, scanners, and saws at IFG’s Chilco sawmill, the industry hopes to land more similar employees, paying them between $25 and $34 per hour, plus benefits.
Retaining a savvy workforce is key to cranking out enough lumber in an hour to frame six to eight homes, and mill owners know it. Educators such as Price and Stricklin also know the partnership between industry and academia has two sides, one for actual hands-on training and one for the administrative role of developing that repository of skills, apprenticeships, and certifications.
“Our students are working in the mills, and we are training the trainers in the mills,” said Stricklin, whose father once ran the head-rig in a sawmill. “It’s great because the mills are very involved.”
On the Cover
Lindsay Mohlere captures a John Deere 2154 working in an Idaho forest.
A Legacy Going Strong
Starting out as far back as Idaho statehood, the Brown family has carried the logging tradition into the fifth generation.
Finding Success in the Residuals Market
Wood shavings may be regarded as a waste product, but for Gem Shavings, supplying animal bedding has proven to be a successful business model.
Eastside Challenges of Modern Day Logging
Kreige Logging understands that overcoming challenges is part of running a successful business.
Sawmill Training Takes a Seat in the Classroom
Five wood products manufacturing companies have teamed up with North Idaho College and Lewis-Clark State College to gather $482,582 for sawmill training.
The Fix Is in! ... Or Is It?
Congress passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus budget that has solved the “fire borrowing” conundrum that has plagued the Forest Service for years.
Focus on Building Leadership
Intermountain Logging Conference review.
2018 OLC Pictorial Review
A look at the highlights of the recent conference.
Guest Column: Forestry’s Best Days are Yet to Come. Here’s Why.
Nick Smith of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities explains what lays ahead for the industry.