Responding to an email follow-up question about sawmill labor, TP 2011 Man of the Year and WKO Inc. President Bill Wilkins wrote: “The issue of automated equipment not being programmed properly should keep mill owners awake at night.”
Prompting Wilkins’ thought is the pending retirement of a top employee—a 25 year headrig sawyer. Even though during the time the sawyer has worked for WKO virtually all the jobs in the mill have been computerized and automated to some extent, Wilkins says he soon realized that the sawyer and his experience were truly irreplaceable due to the simple fact that the knowledge the sawyer acquired prior to widespread optimization is no longer available at the mill—and very few other mills as well.
“It’s not that we don’t have many talented employees—you just can’t replace those years of experience,” Wilkins says, noting that a big issue mill owners and managers now face is a new generation of employees who are highly computer- and technology-literate, but have little or no sawing or lumbering background.
“This is where I see a problem in going from trained sawyers inputting parameters and evaluating solutions to a future work force with no true sawyer training,” Wilkins says. “These new machines are still dependent on a trained individual to enter the parameters used to generate decisions. How do we train new operators to identify bad solutions or sawing patterns on these optimized machines?”
Unlike the equipment operators of old who many times had to be dragged into the scanning and optimization era, the new generation of workers is the most technologically advanced to enter the work force. “They are hooked up to everything—with cell phones, the Internet, Facebook and texting, and on break they catch up with friends via text, social networking or surfing the Web,” Wilkins says, adding there’s no waiting for printed production reports when they can be texted, and emails can be sent directly to supervisors when someone is working outside scheduled hours.
The new generation will have no trouble programming an optimizer, Wilkins believes. “The challenge will be slowing them down long enough to truly train them on the art of sawing logs and making lumber.”
He foresees a two-prong approach to training: Teach the concept of overrun and recovery first to get their attention, then drill them on how lumber grade must be counterbalanced against recovery to create maximum value.
“I fully expect this group will contribute many new ideas toward improving the efficiency of our operations in the future,” he says. There’s no reason to be overly concerned about the new generation, Wilkins adds. “The challenge is figuring out how to corral all this future talent into results.”