Gov. Paul LePage has taken a close interest in the happenings at Good Will-Hinckley since he took office. So when the governor started looking to establish a logger training program in early 2015, he approached Good Will-Hinckley about hosting it.

The logger training program receives a number of mentions in the 25-page report about LePage’s actions surrounding Good Will-Hinckley’s decision to hire Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves as its president.

The push for a logger training program comes at a tumultuous time in the forest products industry, which faces job losses, mill closures and competition from abroad. At the same time, pending retirements in an aging logging workforce have created demand for a new generation of loggers and training programs to prepare them to fill the ranks.

But LePage’s initiative is on hold as he faces a legislative probe and a civil lawsuit surrounding his efforts to see to it that Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves didn’t get a job as Good Will-Hinckley’s president.

A new initiative

On March 3, LePage met with Good Will-Hinckley’s interim president and board chairman and spoke about a role for the nonprofit in implementing a logger training program, according to the report by the Legislature’s nonpartisan investigative arm, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

Good Will-Hinckley was seen as a good fit for the initiative because of its access to forested land; its proximity to and relationship with Kennebec Valley Community College, with which it partnered to start a timber frame construction program; and its location near a number of paper mills. In addition, it has “a student population that might be a good fit for a harvester program,” and two members of its board of directors are senior managers at Sappi, Anne Gabbianelli, a Maine Department of Education spokeswoman, wrote in an email last week.

The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the charter school operated by Good Will-Hinckley, also focuses on farming, sustainability, alternative energy and forestry.

On June 4, according to OPEGA’s report, Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardin followed up with Good Will-Hinckley’s board chairman about the logger initiative because the “governor wanted an update on what GWH had been doing on this” before the two met June 5 to discuss logger training programs.

In a June 4 memo to the governor, Desjardin wrote that “I’ve been working with Good Will-Hinckley on growing a program there … and they have made some progress.” He added that “the next step is for Good Will-Hinckley to contact Sappi in Madison or Skowhegan, or both, to get support” for the initiative.

“We’ll keep pushing the new president to pursue this program as part of the charter school there.”

On June 5, LePage learned of Good Will-Hinckley’s plans to hire Eves. During a meeting with Desjardin, LePage expressed his disapproval of the hire and skepticism about Eves’ ability to carry out the logger program, according to the OPEGA report.

Next generation loggers

LePage’s move to establish a logger training program is the latest in a series of moves by state officials to train the next generation of loggers. A prior LePage education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, had taken an interest in promoting logging as a career in Maine, Gabbianelli wrote in an email.

Also to this end, the Maine Department of Labor formed a logging advisory group tasked with identifying solutions “to address and replace the aging forest industry workforce,” according to its 2012 report. By one count, the average age of a Maine logger is 55.

Among the issues facing the industry were a shortage of young workers who want to become loggers and a shortage of programs to train new loggers to operate technically advanced equipment used by modern loggers.

The Labor Department’s task force called for the creation of “an entry-level logging operator training program” for young Mainers to have an opportunity to gain the skills needed to operate the technically advanced machinery.

There already are a number of forestry programs across the state passing knowledge onto the next generation. Career technical education programs in Farmington, Houlton, Mexico and Rumford operate forestry programs. And just last week, Eastern Maine, Northern Maine and Washington County community colleges unveiled a mechanized logging operators training program, using a new pot of state workforce development funds.

At the federal level, Maine’s Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has put forward a bill — which died in a previous Congress and is nearly identical to legislation introduced in March by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, which also awaits committee action — to encourage young people to move into logging by removing age restrictions that would otherwise prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from working in family logging businesses.

Dim jobs outlook

The jobs outlook for the logging industry isn’t too bright. The state Department of Labor’s 2012-2022 employment outlook projects a 5.2 percent drop in jobs for logging equipment operators, a 43.2 percent drop for log graders and scalers and a 16.7 percent drop for other loggers. Based on the Department of Labor’s forecast, the industry will only see job openings as it replaces retiring workers, not because of growth in the field. Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment opportunities for loggers to drop 9 percent by 2022.

According to the bureau’s latest jobs report, released Oct. 2, mining and logging industries lost nearly 12,000 jobs in September alone, continuing months of steady decline. Overall, goods production industries shed 13,000 jobs, while service providing industries, such as leisure and hospitality, education and health care, gained 131,000 jobs last month.

And the adoption of mechanical harvesting methods continues to reduce the demand for labor within the industry.

Focus shifts

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the logger program will weather the storms surrounding the withdrawal of Eves’ employment offer at Good Will-Hinckley.

Discussions between the Department of Education and Good Will-Hinckley about it have been on hold in recent months, in part because of Eves’ pending lawsuit against the governor.

“There have been no further discussions [about the logger program] because the focus has shifted to the school’s infrastructure from its programs,” Gabbianelli said Tuesday.

LePage’s spokespeople did not respond to emails asking whether the governor will continue to pursue the logger program at Good Will-Hinckley.

Good Will-Hinckley representatives wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon, “We are actively pursuing a logging education initiative, which fits very well with the Maine Academy of Natural Science’s focus on farming, forestry and sustainability and our emphasis on hands-on learning.” They declined to discuss the initiative further at this time.