As forestry companies face labor shortages, University of Idaho offers relief with new degree course

The timber industry contributes nearly $2.5 billion to Idaho’s economy, according to the Idaho Forest Products Commission.

VALLEY COUNTY, IDAHO, Idaho — Labor shortages in the lumber industry are considered normal for second-generation lumberjack Gerry Ikola. He has run the family business since the 1970s.

“It’s been my life,” Ikola said. “I grew up in it. I used to go out in the woods when I was three. You know, it didn’t – it was never just a job.”

Despite Ikola’s love for the course of her career, it’s work; a job that does not attract new workers to the industry.

“We’re struggling to get a full crew. We always seem to be missing someone,” Ikola said.

The average employee of the Ikola logging company, G. Ikola, is 55 years old. Many of its employees are knocking on the door of retirement.

“It worries me that they won’t be working here any longer. I will have to replace them. Who will I replace them with,” Ikola said. “It’s the perception: ‘It’s nothing but physical labor.’ And that’s no longer the case at all.”

In the 1990s, Ikola hired 15 timber fellers – people who fell trees with chainsaws. Today, he hires only three. This is because the industry has changed dramatically. Most loggers work in a cab and use large equipment with a series of knobs and joysticks.

“These pieces of gear are now so mechanized, you walk in and there’s a lot of resemblance to the game,” said Idaho Forrest Product Commission Director Jennifer Okerlund. “The forestry industry today is not at all the forestry industry of yesteryear.”

The lumber industry contributes nearly $2.5 billion to Idaho’s economy, according to Okerlund. The demand for wood products is only increasing, according to Charles Goebel, director of the Department of Forestry, Range and Fire Sciences at the University of Idaho.

The University of Idaho is working directly with Idaho Loggers to find a potential solution to the problem by offering a new curriculum, Goebel said. The two-year program awards an associate degree in forest operations and technology.

“We were sensitive to the forest products industry across the state,” Goebel said.

It is one of the first associate degrees offered in academic history.

“It’s not a forestry degree. It’s a degree to train people who are interested in going out and working in the logging operations business on logging operations,” Goebel said. “We truly have a social contract with the citizens of the state to provide access to high quality and affordable education.”

A solution is needed now, as Idaho lumber sales are growing at rates much faster than loggers can produce, according to figures from the University of Idaho.

“So our industry is now faced with the question of how are we going to meet this demand for wood over the next 20 years?” Ikola said.

Both Ikola and Okerlund think the Idaho degree will offer some relief to the industry; however, the problem itself is difficult to diagnose.

Ikola told KTVB that he pays people fresh out of high school $25 an hour and provides specific on-the-job training. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures Idaho is the highest-paying state for loggers in the entire country.

“So I don’t think money is exactly the issue,” Ikola said.

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