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October 2, 2017
Focus: Northern Maine

Needing more workers, logging industry establishes first-ever training program

PHOTO / Heidi Carter, Northern Maine Community College
PHOTO / Heidi Carter, Northern Maine Community College
Donald Burr, Northern Maine Community College’s program coordinator for the Mechanized Logging Operations Program, trained six students in mechanized logging operations.

Logging in Maine

Industry's economic impact (2014):

• Jobs: 7,342 (direct and indirect)

• Economic impact: $882 million

• Harvest: 14,188,085 tons (pulpwood, saw timber, biomass)

Both loggers and the overall forest products industry have been rocked by closures of paper mills and biomass power plants in recent years.

Source: Professional Logging Contractors of Maine

After just three months in Maine's first post-secondary training program for mechanized logging equipment, Cody Dennison already has a couple of job options lined up with forestry companies.

Dennison, 21, came to the program after two years studying diesel hydraulics at Northern Maine Community College, followed by a year working as a mechanic in Lewiston, not far from his hometown of Leeds. He heard about the logging program, when it was still in the planning stage, while he was at NMCC.

"It seemed something I'd be interested in," he says, reached by phone while at the training site outside of Millinocket. "I love it. Before this program, I didn't have a clue about anything in the logging industry. But I'm an outdoorsy person and I enjoy being out in the woods and running the equipment."

One of six students in the new training program, Dennison, along with his classmates, illustrates its success as a new recruitment tool in the logging industry. Logging has traditionally been a family-based industry, where children followed in their parents' footsteps. But the number of younger workers is declining and many older workers will retire over the coming decade. Already, the industry has numerous unfilled positions for qualified operators skilled in modern computerized logging machines. So a partnership of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine with community colleges established the program to recruit new talent — including those, like Dennison, previously unacquainted with the industry — and offer them hands-on training and a pipeline to good-paying jobs.

"My goal is to have young people be able to operate these half-million-dollar machines and make a good wage with benefits, so that they look at this as a career," says Jim Nicols, co-owner of Nicols Brothers Logging in Rumford, who assisted with the program's conception as a PLC board member. "It takes time to build that, as more and more people drift away from our types of jobs."

Career jumpstart

The 12-week Millinocket course is one of three rounds on tap. The other two are scheduled to take place in 2018 and 2019, in Presque Isle and the Calais region. The program was developed by PLC, Northern Maine Community College, Eastern Maine Community College and Washington County Community College, with support from Milton CAT/CAT Forest Products, Nortrax Inc./John Deere and other industry partners.

PHOTO / Heidi Carter, Northern Maine Community College
PHOTO / Heidi Carter, Northern Maine Community College
The first cohort of Mechanized Logging Operations students trained in Millinocket.

The program is funded by the Maine Quality Centers, by a special allocation received from the Maine Legislature in 2015 called Put ME to Work, and a 50% match from industry. Milton CAT and Nortrax donated the use of logging's specialized heavy equipment — like the feller buncher, which grabs the tree with grapple hooks and holds it while a heavy-duty saw cuts it off at the trunk; a grapple skidder and harvesters. For the pilot class, land was provided by Katahdin Forest Management and training space by PLC founding member Gerald Pelletier Inc. The course includes classroom and hands-on training, putting students in modern equipment, in the woods, under actual logging conditions. They receive an overview of common mechanical systems in modern timber harvesting equipment, and an understanding of the variables of timber growth, tree species and markets. They also become familiar with environmental regulations, safety, logging economics and basic maintenance.

Graduates will have a foundation as operators, reducing the need for training when they join a company. The program also reduces the initial investment contractors typically pay to train recruits on their own. That cost averages $100,000 per recruit.

"It's become very costly for companies like ours to take someone who's never run a machine, like those we run nowadays, and do the training ourselves," says Nicols. "So any sort of entry-level training is very helpful and reduces the logging company's cost greatly."

That investment can be a risk if a recruit decides the career is not for them.

"Sometimes a person thinks they want to do it and once they get in they realize they don't want to do it," says Nicols. "Other times they end up loving it."

"Logging is a bit of a way of life," says Donald Burr, who took a leave of absence from Madden Timberlands in Old Town, where he operates a feller buncher, to run the program. "It's like licorice — you either really like it or you don't. You won't know until you try it. So a contractor might have $100,000 invested in you and you might not like it. To put that money into someone only to find out this isn't for them — they've lost a lot of money."

The program offers a good alternative that acquaints students with the industry, without the risk for contractors, says Burr. Students who continue on to jobs have a good foundation of knowledge and experience that will give them a jumpstart on a new job.

Professional pathway

In addition to risk mitigation, PLC Executive Director Dana Doran cites other reasons for the program:

  • Today's highly mechanized equipment has transformed the formerly labor-intensive chainsaw-and-skidder industry. As a result, a different degree of technology training is needed.

  • With the average age of loggers in Maine at 55-plus, a retirement cliff is looming.

  • Significant market decline in recent years has resulted in many employees leaving the industry permanently, leaving many contractors without qualified people. Logging also competes with other industries for employees. "This is a way that we can find the next generation of operators, motivate them to look at this pathway, get the training and step into a meaningful career opportunity even if they have no experience with logging whatsoever," says Doran.

  • Other than four remaining high school logging education programs that feed graduates to on-the-job training, Maine hasn't had a professional pathway for training. The new program provides a path into the industry through community college, both for young adults and for older adults seeking a career change.

Burr says the pluses of the work are many.

"You're independent and you're running big equipment in the woods, being entrusted to make decisions," says Burr. "It's exciting and challenging and you learn something new every day. You don't have someone every day peeking over your cubicle. We're out in the woods. We work in the dark, the snow, the rain. We see bear and moose and all kinds of cool stuff. It's just that way."

The six students under his wing range in age from 18 to 27 and come from all over Maine. He's had numerous calls and visits from contractors, ready to recruit. By mid-September, four students had jobs lined up, and Burr expected the other two to receive offers shortly.

No wonder. It's difficult to say how many open positions there are today, but anecdotally, Doran estimates upward of 100.

"Our membership says all the time that they're trying to find operators," Doran says.

The workforce shortage affects the industry's ability to produce to capacity, says Doran. "There are many contractors throughout the state who could be harvesting and trucking more wood than they probably are," he says. "They can't find harvesters to harvest it, or truck drivers to move it."

Entry-level pays well, says Doran — averaging $43,000 the first year, based on $15 to $16 per hour, plus overtime, and benefits.

"In rural Maine, these are good-paying jobs," he says.

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