Article by Rich Donnell

I keep running into long-time acquaintances at lumber industry events who tell me they’re about to retire. This always depresses me, because for one thing it means I probably won’t see them much anymore, and it means that I’m probably not far behind them, given my age is roughly in the same ballpark. I’m not at that point yet, because I’m having more fun with what I do than ever, but these conversations do point to a bigger picture.

The big picture at the recent SFPA Expo in Atlanta, as one long-time lumberman said to me, was that attendance was composed mostly of the old guard, like himself, and was too thin on new blood. By no means does anybody want to run off the oldtimers, but more influx of the younger generation not only would be great for trade shows, but is an absolute necessity for the development of the lumber industry.

Those who are actually managing lumber operations and machinery companies, or are involved in lumber associations, or are on the faculty at universities have better insight than myself as to the “state of new blood” in the lumber industry. Obviously some of these entities do a better job than others when having programs in place to attract new talent.

I do know that many softwood and hardwood lumbermen who responded to our Sawmill Operations & Capital Expenditure Survey pointed to a lack of available talent in filling positions as a major concern.  

I know there are several universities with excellent wood products curriculums, but I wonder if something is being lost in the transition to actually filling sawmill job openings. In fact, it seems there are more practical programs in place for the recruitment and development of forestry and wood procurement personnel than for sawmilling.

Could it be that many sawmills have implemented high-tech apparatus, and when the high-tech educated recruit comes to the fork in the road, he steers to another high-tech industry? Could it be that for those sawmills that aren’t so high-tech, that the skills-educated recruit also turns to another industry?

Again, I’m very aware that many sawmill companies and groups have implemented successful programs to get these recruits to take the path to the sawmill industry, but you see what you see on the floor of a trade show. Or, if for some reason sawmill companies are keeping their young employees from attending trade shows, they shouldn’t be.

One other observation: With so many formerly independent, family sawmill operations purchased by Canadian corporations in the past 10 years, think of the upcoming generation that in the past would have attended those shows and become a part of this industry, but who no longer are in the industry, replaced on the show floor by a couple of guys from corporate.

As the producer of the Timber Processing & Energy Expo, scheduled again for September 30 to October 2, 2020 in Portland, Ore., we’re working on incorporating a program into our event that will attract and educate young talent that has entered our industry in hopes of keeping him or her in the industry, and that will also spark an interest in those who are considering becoming a part of the industry.

Obviously it’s not an easy task, but as the veteran lumberman told me in Atlanta, we’ve got to stop all of us from looking like each other.