The Job No One Wants: Why Won't Young People Work in Logging?
On a steep slope just inland from Waldport, Oregon, a young forestry worker named Jared Foster is at the controls of a large machine called a forwarder. The machine, made by Finnish company Ponnse, looks like it was designed by Michael Bay.
The front section contains a climate-controlled cabin, in which Foster sits, listening to a country music station as he works. The back features a large, articulated mechanical arm with a yellow claw, and a cage that can hold up to 20 metric tons of felled timber. The whole thing is tethered by a steel cable to a large stump at the top of the slope, to keep it from careening down the hill.
In the cab, Foster manipulates a joystick that controls the arm, which gathers up felled Douglas Fir trees as if they were Jenga sticks. It’s taken him a year to master it, and his training has included time on simulators. His supervisor, Matt Mattioda of Miller Lumber, says: “It’s as complicated as flying a plane.” Eventually, when there’s an opening, Jared will get his chance to run the even more daunting harvester that can clear a patch of firs in minutes.
Mattioda and other experts hope the new machines might help the logging industry solve its millennial problem: young people are not attracted to a life in the forest.
He says that the machines are nothing short of a technological revolution for the industry. “A few years back we would have had to clear a slope like this by hand.” Until now, mechanisation has only been possible on flat ground, because vehicles have not had the attractive capability to stay on sloped. Now, winches, tethering, and the wheel system mean that “together these machines can do the work of eight men or more”.
John Garland, professor emeritus at Oregon State University, has spent a lifetime researching the industry and trying to improve its safety record. Earlier, as we drove along a forest road to the site that Miller Lumber was clearing, he explained why the industry has struggled to attract young people to its ranks. “Logging is difficult, dirty, dangerous, and declining.”
Death or injury “can come from trees falling in the wrong direction, or hitting another tree and falling back on someone”, he said. Others come from what are known as “struck-by” injuries, where a loose felled log hits somebody.
Garland talks of a recent Oregon death he investigated as a consultant, where a truck driver “was strapping on logs, and one fell off and struck him in the head”.
“Oftentimes, we lose three or four timber fallers a year in Oregon, and the same in Washington.”
If that’s the most dangerous job in the industry, then there’s a good argument for it being the most dangerous job in the country.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics issues an annual census of the deadliest jobs. In 2016, truck drivers had the most fatal workplace injuries (885), and loggers had 67. But loggers are a far smaller workforce. At 132.7 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers, workers in logging are the most likely to die at work, and almost two and a half times more at risk than those in the next most dangerous profession, fishing.
The decline Garland mentions is not so much in what remains of the industry – indeed with construction booming, loggers are facing a labour shortage. “We went through a terrible recession in the 2008-2012 period. Since then it’s been becoming markedly better.”
Rather, it is in the communities that once fostered large workforces for the industry, but which suffered a series of blows from the 1980s from which few ever recovered.
“There was in the past a long familial relationship,” says Garland. “As times got tough and the jobs got less plentiful, children became less inclined to follow in their parents’ footsteps.” In the cities where people have flooded to from all over the north-west, there’s little appetite for a dangerous job with 4am starts all year round. And in an industry with no formal training, this means that skills – some necessary for survival – can only be taught on the job.
There’s also the fact that many traditional jobs are no longer very well paid. The 1980s recession, timed with the beginning of the Reagan years, was the beginning of a progressive destruction of unions in an industry which had at a time been the centre of the most militant labor struggles in the history of the American west. In 1978, a forestry worker with no high-school diploma could earn up to 40% more than the state’s average wage. Now, fellers can earn as little as $18 an hour.
As a result, the workforce in the notoriously dangerous industry is ageing, and not growing fast enough to meet the accelerating demand for timber products. Garland says that the median age of workers in many parts of the industry is well into middle age, and for some jobs, like truck drivers, it may be over 60.
“A lot of our cutters are older too, and they carry cumulative trauma on their backs, knees and joints.”
But the new harvesting methods offer a more attractive work environment. Garland says: “It is pretty clear that it is hard to recruit people to do hard work. That changes somewhat when we have people working with machines.” He hopes that the machines might also attract women to an industry that is more male-dominated than most.
Mattioda says “it’s harder for people who don’t run these systems to find people to work for them”, but that among the Miller crews that work with the machines, few are over 35. And the reason is simple. “Would you rather be in this cabin doing what Jared’s doing, or out there setting chokers by hand in hot sun or snow?”
There are some things the industry can’t change. The decline of logging towns is partly connected to increasing restrictions on harvesting on public lands, which itself is partly due to environmental values becoming more prominent in land management.
And they are still at the beginning of a long process of getting the landowners and sawmills they work with to accept the technology. But the new machines – which improve working conditions, safety, and the jobs’s prestige – may just ensure that logging has a future.
“It’s good,” says Foster. “Every day’s different. You travel. You learn things. It’s a lot better than driving a truck.”