A guiding principle of the wood products industry is to reforest after harvesting – new trees are planted for future generations. Now, as baby boomers retire, North Idaho wood product manufacturers are applying that same principle to their workforce.
North Idaho College, the Idaho Department of Labor and the three largest wood products manufacturing companies in North Idaho have teamed up to develop an NIC Wood Products Manufacturing Center of Excellence. The center will train the next generation of workers in an industry that has always been the backbone of North Idaho’s economy. Nearly one in four manufacturing jobs in Idaho’s 10 northern counties are in wood products manufacturing and another 13 percent are in the related paper products industry, according to an August 2013 IDOL Labor Market Assessment.
“Wood products manufacturing in North Idaho is a staple industry. It will always be here,” said Marie Price, NIC Workforce Training Center director. “But, there’s been a growing need for a workforce with a higher skill set. That need is being driven by the fact that the workforce is now aging.”
Price said that 80 percent of current log scalers – whose job it is to measure wood to determine scale and quality – in North Idaho are age 50 or higher. In addition, the wood products manufacturing market experienced a dip in 2009. With that dip, the number of jobs available in the industry shrunk, said Michael Weller, program coordinator for the NIC Wood Products Manufacturing Center for Excellence. Younger, less experienced workers left the industry.
“Workers either got out or they’re retiring,” Weller said.
Wood manufacturing is now on the rebound with jobs forecasted by IDOL to increase 24 percent in Idaho from 4,540 in 2010 to 5,620 in 2020.
“The outlook for Idaho’s forest products businesses is bright thanks to a number of factors,” said Betty Munis, director of the Idaho Forest Products Commission. “Demand for wood products is growing as the housing market gradually recovers, exciting new products such as cross laminated lumber are emerging, and export opportunities continue to grow. Idaho has the most productive forests in the Inland West, high quality wood fiber and species diversity. Those advantages coupled with state-of-the-art manufacturing technology create a great opportunity for Idaho’s forest industry to grow.”
The need for qualified workers is back.
“Now, all of a sudden, they have to fill shifts and they’re saying, ‘We don’t have a pool of trained folks to fill that gap,’” Weller said.
Weller started his coordinator position in January. Weller recently retired from the U.S. Air Force where he specialized in training coordination. He has a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Mechanization, a master's degree in Agriculture from Washington State University and became familiar with all of the mills in North Idaho by working as a travelling millwright.
His position, like the rest of the NIC Wood Products Manufacturing Center for Excellence, is funded through a $281,036 IDOL grant awarded in November. Beginning in March, the program will enroll 116 participants in two years, with the focus on training workers for industrial controls, saw filing and log scaling. Three employers, Idaho Forest Group, Potlatch Corp. and Stimson Lumber Co., are matching 25 percent of the grant.
“There are some great employment opportunities within the lumber manufacturing industry,” said Beti Becker, director of Human Resources for Idaho Forest Group. “This grant will help ensure a supply of trained applicants for some unique skilled positions.”
Munis said more than 10,500 jobs were directly tied to Idaho’s forest businesses in 2013 with those workers earning an average $53,000 in wages, which is 27 percent higher than the Idaho average for similar manufacturing jobs. Another 9,280 jobs were what’s called “indirect or induced” jobs, she said, that are created because wood and paper products are sent out of Idaho.
“Simply put, because we have businesses that convert timber into useful wood and paper products, 19,790 people have jobs,” Munis said. “They all pay taxes and contribute to their local communities. Perhaps the best thing about forest-related jobs is that they are based on trees – a renewable resource that can be sustainably managed for future jobs and products.”
Price said the new program is the result of North Idaho partners playing to the region’s strengths.
“People call the southern part of Idaho the ‘food basket’ of the state. That’s their advantage. Well, we’re the wood basket,” Price said. “North Idaho was built on wood manufacturing and that’s where the need is right now. The Wood Products Manufacturing Center for Excellence is a wonderful partnership with NIC, the Idaho Department of Labor, and employers and we’re excited about training the next generation of timber workers.”