A Shortage of Loggers Looms in the U.S.

Dr. Tom Gallagher, the Regions Bank Endowed Professor of Forest Operations in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, comments on the potential shortage of loggers in the timber industry.

Dr. Tom Gallagher

What is the national outlook for filling logging jobs?

The national outlook is not positive at this time. The younger generation is not interested in working in the woods, partly because of not being aware and partly because it is a tough environment. Several programs are being implemented to address the first reason, such as one by the Alabama Forestry Association called ForestryWorks, which has free classes designed to recruit and train equipment operators. Several other states, especially in the Southeast, are also developing programs.

However, I do not know of any mills that are not receiving enough wood to meet their demands. We are just observing many loggers and equipment operators at the end of their careers, and the industry is concerned with who will step up and take over harvesting.

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Has the timber industry faced this type of shortage in the past?

Not in modern times, because mechanization has been very beneficial to our industry. Fifty years ago, three men working together toiled to produce maybe 25 tons/day. Now three men in harvesting equipment produce 300-plus tons/day of products. So we have greatly reduced the need for woods workers. But we have reached a peak on equipment efficiency, so that solution has somewhat played out. And we still need a new generation of operators and loggers, and the industry is not seeing the influx of people stepping up to the table.

How would a shortage of loggers affect timber production?

It would obviously hurt any timber consuming mill if they did not get the amount of timber needed to run (pulp mills, sawmills, oriented strand board (OSB) plants, pellet operations, pallet mills, etc.). A shortage of loggers will make prices rise, just like any commodity with a supply-and-demand situation. The fewer loggers would demand more payment for their services which would be passed on to the consumer.

What types of equipment do loggers operate now compared to 20 or 30 years ago? Do they need more advanced skills?

In the Southeast, most loggers run a tree-length operation. They use a feller-buncher to cut the tree and place it in bunches; a skidder to pull those bunches to the deck or landing; and then a trailer-mounted, knuckleboom loader to process the trees for the market(s) they are delivering to and load them onto trucks. Jobs in the woods have become less laborious and more finesse. The controls to the machines are usually joysticks. So while I would not call it “advanced skills,” you do need to be able to multitask equipment capabilities into a productive machine flow. That is what the new ForestryWorks program is intended: to teach operators how to be productive with the equipment in a safe manner. While the class is only 4-6 weeks long (just enough time for the basics), it will usually take several months before an operator is proficient.

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