An Auburn University professor is collaborating with the Alabama Forestry Association to address a shortage of logging business owners and operators by promoting opportunities in the industry.
“There was a recent survey done by Timber Harvesting magazine that shows the average age of the logger, the business owner, is 54, and specifically, 49 percent of them are in the 60 and above category,” said Tom Gallagher, a professor in Auburn's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Then, you go to the operators, the guys running the equipment for them, and it’s not that different.”
The implementation of advanced mechanization has increased costs and decreased the number of employees, discouraging potential loggers and operators from pursuing a career in the industry, according to Gallagher.
“It’s hard to get folks to invest the money it takes to put together a logging crew,” Alabama Forestry Commission forester Rick Oates said. “Thirty years ago, it was a chainsaw, an old pickup truck and cable skidder, and you could go into the business for $100,000. Now, it’s half-a-million dollar investment, you've got headaches of employing people and truck drivers hauling timber.”
Gallagher said the disinterest to start or work in a logging business derives from a lack of insight and financial resources.
“The biggest hindrance to going into logging, in my opinion, is a lack of knowledge of the industry, but it’s mostly the money,” Gallagher said. “You've got to have a friend in the bank. He’s got to have equipment. That’s the stumbling block for a lot of loggers. There are opportunities to work with suppliers and middle men that will help you get that investment.”
Regulations and laws, including best management practices, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, OSHA, fair labor standards and public safety in commercial driver rules could be deterrents in starting a logging business, Oates explained.
“The environmental laws and regulations you follow are certainly something people are concerned about,” he said. “We have some loggers here and there that get in trouble occasionally for not following those rules, and we work with various groups to teach folks how to correctly do it. We've got folks in the field that work directly with loggers to go out and inspect for best management practices.”
Oates said the problem could be generational perspectives for enduring hard work as descendants of logging business owners search for easier occupations.
“In the past, a lot of logging businesses have been passed down from a father to a son, but it’s been a family business,” Oates said. “I think a lot of young folks are watching their fathers struggle to do that job, and they realize there might be an easier ways to make a living. It could be a generational change. Folks don’t want to go out there and do that kind of work.”
As for the logging industry in southeastern states such as Alabama, the days of wielding a chainsaw are a concept of the past, and Gallagher said the rewards in the logging industry are worth the arduous work and financial expense.
“A good logger can make a comfortable salary of $60,000 to $70,000 a year once it gets going,” Gallagher said. “Nowadays, an operator is going to start off with $30,000, give or take. Once you show your worth, you can do better than that. If you get three guys together who can move a lot of wood, you can get bonuses. If you move 30 loads a week, you get paid. If you move 40 loads a week, you get an extra $100 each.”
Gallagher said the work environment for operators is typically clean unless a machine requires maintenance, and most heavy equipment has air conditioning, heating and satellite radio to work in comfort.
“The equipment most loggers have is very comfortable,” Gallagher said. “There are comfortable seats on air-ride cushions that bounce up and down to absorb the shock. You are in seats that turn around, so when you have to back up, you don’t have to look over your shoulder anymore. If you are a clean freak, you can show up to work in white pants and go home without a stain on them.”
Utilizing the equipment, the fatality rate in the southeastern United States for logging operators has decreased significantly, Gallagher mentioned.
“I say that on a regional basis,” Gallagher said. “Logging, unfortunately, is still one, two or three, depending on what statistic you use, whether it is accidents or fatalities, but that’s mostly from the mountain states and the West Coast, where they do a lot of chainsaw work.”