Turning Point for Timber as Demand Rises, Workforce Numbers Fall

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

“The light at the end of the tunnel is, hopefully, that the markets will pick up, the lumber will be needed and, therefore, we as loggers will be more in demand,” said Steve Richardson, a Warren-area logger and one of the founders of the Arkansas Timber Producers Association.

But, Richardson and others ask, will the workforce be there to cut that wood?

The lingering forest products downturn — a weakness in housing that started in 2006 but went into freefall in 2008 — pared almost a third of the logging workforce in Arkansas.

“We’ve lost probably about 30 percent of our logging capacity in the last five years,” Pelkki said. “And so as we have a resurgence, that’s a real concern.”

“Everything you see here,” Richardson said, giving a visitor a quick drive-by tour of Warren on a crisp November morning, “is tied to the logging business.” And when the bottom fell out of the housing market, businesses that depended on the timber industry — equipment dealers, mechanics, most of southern Arkansas — felt the effects.

“When the market crashed in 2008, the prediction was that by the fourth quarter of 2009, everything would be back to normal,” said Richardson. That, of course, didn’t happen.

“We were in a total production mode when the crash hit,” he said. “I personally had just spent $1 million on equipment.”

Richardson employs 21 workers and subcontracts out another 20, making him a bigger than average logger, who will have 12 to 15 employees.

His logging company, Richardson Wood Co., brings in $1.5 million to $2 million in annual revenue, he said.

The downturn forced out marginal operations, leaving only the hardiest and best capitalized. “Every logger has either gotten more productive with less people, just like the farming business, and gotten to be a larger producer, or they can’t stay in business,” Richardson said.

In addition, the workforce is aging out of the industry, and loggers and mills wonder where they’ll find employees to replace them. “The average age of Arkansas loggers is about 55,” Pelkki said. “We’re talking about an industry that’s going to see a lot of people leaving in the next 10 years, and we’re not exactly sure where we’re going to see new recruitment coming in. And of course that puts a real crunch on getting material to the mills.”

Plum Creek’s Rick Holley puts logging contractor capacity at the top of the biggest challenges facing his industry. The company wonders whether loggers will return to the forests as the industry recovers. “Some will, but the work is hard, does not pay well, requires a lot of capital and young people just don’t want to go into logging,” he said.



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