By Rex Storm, CF
Over the past decades, we became so focused on growing and managing our Northwest forests that we neglected to grow our contract workforce capacity. Throughout the United States, there’s a skilled labor shortage that has created acute competition for the skilled trades worker, and trades contract businesses. This deficit is especially acute in rural America. In addition, trade careers such as forestry are perceived to be unattractive by young generations.
Compounding the challenge is keen competition for the mid-career forest worker from other trades that offer more lucrative employment opportunities. Add to these challenges the escalating small business costs because of more labor requirements, regulations, and taxes. Today, the obstacles facing the forest contractor’s workforce have become stifling to their productive capacity. Surprisingly, the double-digit unemployment rates wrought by the covid-19 disruptions haven’t relieved the challenge to find qualified forest workers.
In recent years, following the great recession, the region’s forest contract sector has wrestled to both retain and attract qualified workers. This workforce disruption isn’t a normal business cycle phenomenon; the challenge is more systemic than the industry’s customary market ups and downs. For example, following the 2007-11 recession as demand expanded, the contract capacity actually fell flat or even declined in some factors.
The forest contracting workforce is now undergoing unprecedented change, which has spilled over to impact the very capacity to produce timber volume—and to safely deliver, and sustain, the vital contracted services that assure a thriving forest sector.
Emerging workforce capacity deficit
Oregon’s forest contract sector is currently beset in a functionally weakened condition—troubled by chronic insufficient investments in labor, equipment, profit, capital, or equity. This unprecedented business challenge is not solely driven by America’s “labor shortage.” Rather, the forest contract workforce deficiency is an obvious symptom of the more comprehensive ailment: disinvested contract capacity over a three-decade period.
The current forest contracting weakness is a multi-faceted challenge with obstacles that have evolved over many years. Therefore, the solutions to sustain and grow Oregon forest contracting will require multi-faceted innovation by many businesses that could take years to implement.
Our forest sector is immersed in an unprecedented cycle, where worsening workforce changes now impair forestry’s future improvement, investment and growth. In Oregon forests, this labor-shortage pain hits home regularly when the supervisor bench is bare; mid-career workers depart for better jobs in competing trades; new hires quickly exit; experienced workers retire; and few young workers seek forest jobs.
Deepening the pain is the scarce numbers of applicants who are either unqualified or unwilling to work for the available low wages. Additionally, market contract rates and low margins simply cannot support raised compensation for workers. Gaps have appeared in contracting production goals, frequent worker turnover is high, vacancies sap output, and inexperience fosters safety challenges. This is a recipe for future sweeping production deficits.
Increasing awareness of contractor challenges
During early 2019, the Associated Oregon Loggers (AOL) convened an eight-hour webTV series, ‘Planning the 2020 Workforce for Oregon/Washington Forest Contractors.’ Produced by Devonshire Group LLC, this educational program aimed to create an industry-wide understanding of the forest contractor’s capacity challenges and identify possible improvements. Cosponsored by 15 firms in the forest sector, the program engaged over 120 panelists, contractors and purchasers to learn and shape possibilities to improve our contracting future.
Workforce problems are the common pinch point where contractors and purchasers of contract services alike can see—and agree—to begin a discussion about stifled contractor investment and future capacity. In preparation for the webTV series, AOL collated the findings from twelve different studies over the past decade about forest contractor performance (nationally and regionally). These studies confirmed the thesis that Oregon’s contract sector is weakened in a way that impairs its capacity to sustain and grow.
The series identified four “improvement vectors” (or workforce objectives):
- increase flow of qualified workers;
- expand access to workforce services;
- make forest a great place to work; and
- parity with competing trades lifestyle wage.
The series identified 64 actionable improvements that any forest company— any contractor, any purchaser, or industry-wide group—could deploy to modernize forest contracting workforce and capacity. Additionally, 64 improvement innovations were identified to focus possible future efforts for three target audiences: a) contractors; b) purchasers; or c) forest sector wide.
Future holds much opportunity
In spite of the grim picture I described earlier in the article, today’s forest industry is undergoing a hidden metamorphosis; the sector is rebuilding its work capacity and its workplace to compete with other trade sectors for the valuable qualified worker.
Today’s worker wants to see a future in their occupation! The forest sector is learning that each company has to do better to appeal to today’s worker rather than yesterday’s industry norms about laborious and dangerous forest work. To attract and retain workers to forest contracting, we must create a vision of a great future to workers. That means: a great place to work in the forest; a thriving industry doing good things; rural lifestyle in family business; real pathways to long-term occupations and careers; and a compensation package competitive with other trades.
The future is bright
The future is bright for the Northwest forest sector, as the sector joins force to reinvent our forest workforce. Together—contractors, landowners, manufacturers—we possess the innovation and strengths to overcome the forest’s current workforce challenges. Our success will be buoyed by the region’s abundant forests, its valuable wood products, our superior forest contracting capacity, world-leading manufacturing and distribution systems, excellence in forest science, and the nation’s most-engaged family forestland community!
Every Company Can Take Action
Every forest business has a role, an improvement action, that can improve the future forest contract capacity situation. AOL’s workforce project identified a range of opportunities where industry can work together to renovate its investment toward workforce production, health, and safety.
Revolutionizing a stronger contract sector will require new investments in altered workforce and contract relations for the mutual benefit of both purchaser and contractor. No one company can alone make needed improvements to reform contracting capabilities. However, each company and each forest organization can make their own workforce capacity improvements.
- Contractors can modernize their work structures to foster the next generation of workers and access non-traditional workers from expanded regional pools; diminish unfavorable jobs and create occupational career pathways; and create next generation workplace teamwork designs for forest workers.
- Purchasers can change the paradigm toward stronger contract services; make strategic long-term sustainability of the contract sector a new business priority; and reinvest in a healthy contract capacity necessary to sustain and grow the region’s forest sector.
- Purchaser-contractor relations can improve contract rates or terms that afford sustainable contractor profit, equity, and workforce investment.
- Sector-wide reinvestments can develop career promotions and recruiting connections; expand regional labor pools; and promote the sector as a great place to work and forestry is a great career.
- Workforce agencies should enhance programs that connect regional trade workers to forest contractors; assistance from forest sector to help agencies better support forest workforce.
- Primary and technical education can better encourage preparation for trades, life skills, and vocational occupations.
Rex Storm, CF is the executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, Inc., the statewide trade group representing over 1,000 Oregon forest contract businesses. He can be reached at 503-364-1330 or firstname.lastname@example.org.