The forest products industry, including loggers and log haulers, primary and secondary manufacturers, pulp and paper mills, paper packing plants, and paper facilities, is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the U.S., sustaining nearly 926,000 families and contributing $353 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The sustainability and competitive viability of the forest products industry relies on an intact, healthy wood supply chain, including labor. Mill labor shortages are limiting modernization and/or growth investments in existing and new manufacturing facilities, and our logging sector is aging (the average age of logging business owners is 55+), and many are planning to leave the business in five years.
The workforce challenges are not only impacting the forest products industry. Access to a skilled workforce severely limits the US Forest Service’s ability to implement existing forest plans, achieve timber harvest commitments, and meet the intent of the funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act to replant forests, improve forest health, reduce the risk of wildfire, and protect communities.
On a macro scale, there are also national indicators that show labor challenges will continue as the workforce diminishes due to an aging population. In 1965, there were 5.2 workers per retiree. This number remained stable until 2007 but has since declined to about 3.5 workers per retiree in 2023. This number is expected to keep falling and may be worse for rural communities as these areas tend to have an older population. A report from the U.S. Census shows that 17.5 percent of the rural population is 65 years and older compared to 13.8 percent for urban areas.
Another headwind facing rural communities is the outmigration of young adults. Rural areas tend to have higher numbers of young adults leaving their communities. For example, in rural parts of northern Wisconsin, youth migration is as high as 55 percent compared to only 29 percent for urban areas of the state.
What all this suggests is that there will continue to be increased competition for labor in the years to come. Rural forest-based communities need to address this issue, and the best way to do that is to provide opportunities for young adults to be exposed to good careers in forestry through education and training. Legislation has been introduced to do just that: address the workforce challenges of the forestry sector.
Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.) introduced the bipartisan Jobs in the Woods Act (H.R. 5344) on Sept. 5. The legislation would create a grant program for nonprofit organizations, state governments, and colleges to utilize workforce training in forestry-related fields — helping prepare students for jobs in the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry.
Specifically, the legislation would:
- Create education programs by states, nonprofits, and colleges through grants of $500,000-$2,000,000,
- Create programs in rural and low-income areas to spur economic development, bringing thousands of dollars of investments into our rural and underserved communities,
- Create a pool of talented, trained, and qualified applicants to fill timber industry job openings, helping Americans obtain quality jobs working to serve and responsibly manage our forest and secure our wood industry supply chain, and
- Partner with programs that have proven to help students achieve forestry industry jobs and programs that engage with their local communities.
Managing forests for renewable wood products, wildlife, clean water, and carbon storage and sequestration takes a longtime vision over a planning horizon that spans many decades. We need to put the same effort into assuring that a reliable and skilled workforce is available to implement forest plans to meet the societal needs over the same planning horizon. The Jobs in the Woods Act is a good start to make sure a future workforce is available for managing and protecting public and private forestlands.
A forester once told me that no matter how stressful things may be at work or home, “everyday I hop into my truck and go into the woods, its all good.” This view on his forestry career certainly puts things in perspective.
FRA and nearly 60 forestry associations across the country encourage members of Congress to support the Jobs in the Woods Act.
Tim O’Hara is Vice President of Government Affairs for the Forest Resources Association.
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