MILLINOCKET, Maine — In the midst of a bad week for Maine’s pulp and paper mills, logging industry leaders on Wednesday announced a new community college program aimed at attracting new workers for their businesses.
The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine has joined forces with three Maine community colleges to create a Mechanized Logging Operations Training Program, which is expected to start in early 2016 with about 36 students, according to Dana Doran, the logging organization’s executive director.
The announcement came the day after the owner of a pulp mill in Old Town announced it would close by the end of the year, and two days after a tissue mill in Lincoln filed for bankruptcy. This has happened before in the paper industry, but the demand for wood supply and loggers to harvest that supply will remain strong, Doran said.
“We have seen 12-15 percent growth in the availability of positions and new hires in this industry,” he said. “So, basically, we’ve seen the addition of about 250-300 people back into this industry since the beginning of 2014.”
Nationally, there were more than 43,000 jobs in the logging field in 2012, with an average salary of $33,600, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report listed 1,240 logging equipment operators in Maine earning an average of $35,300.
In the 1990s, employment in the logging industry started to decline because it became more mechanized. Now, however, those employers are looking to hire back more people, and those people will need to know how to run, maintain and repair more complex equipment. The average age of workers in the harvesting industry is 55, prompting contractors to try to find and train younger loggers.
“We bottomed out by 2012-2013, and now we’re on our way back up,” Doran said. “The ebb and flow of the paper industry has been occurring for 15 years, but our issue has not changed. Regardless of whether our industry employs 25,000 or if it employs 2,500, we need qualified operators.”
In spite of the mill difficulties, demand for wood itself is strong, according to the logging industry officials.
The Mechanized Logging Operations Training Program will be launched at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, with Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and Washington County Community College in Calais also hosting training. The program has been in development for more than a year, and organizers are seeking support from the Put ME to Work Program, which recently was enacted by the Maine Legislature to include $500,000 for each year of the biennium to support the creation of new job training programs at Maine’s community colleges.
Professional Logging Contractors of Maine says Maine has one of the strongest lumber resources in the country and, paired with strong resource management practices and legislation that isn’t overly restrictive, logging is well situated to grow as an industry.
Doran said some millworkers who will be out of work could switch from paper to logging if they choose, provided they have “mechanical aptitude and are willing to work extremely hard and are dedicated to this industry.” Those workers could go through community college training and find placement.
Milton CAT, a Brewer-based heavy equipment dealer, donated a feller buncher, grapple skidder and stroke delimber, worth about $1.2 million, to get the program started.
More than 100 forest products industry leaders, contractors, state lawmakers and about 20 high school students considering logging careers crowded under a tent at Gerald Pelletier Inc. on the Golden Road for Wednesday’s announcement. Afterward, they watched a demonstration of the new CAT equipment at work and had lunch.
Past and present lawmakers at the event began discussing ways to look to the state’s future in the wake of another round of mill shutdowns and bankruptcies in recent months. Charles Pray, a former state senator from Millinocket, said he is working with Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, to potentially schedule a mill town summit.
The economy of these towns is changing yet again, Pray said, and it could be beneficial for them to come together and talk about how to attract new investment and get people back to work.
“We’re going to get through this tough time as an industry, as a state, if we stick together,” Doran said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.