SW Community Forestry Caucus

Workforce Training & Development

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"When the wood flow gets started so that a guy can make a business, then we will get some jobs being created. It has been hard to bring people along over four years without having wood. Even then, the small diameter thinning business is the steepest entrepreneurial hill you can climb."

-Gordon West, Gila WoodNet, Silver City New Mexi co

Regional differences are very important when it comes to the topic of workforce training and development. Whereas the Pacific Northwest needed to focus on immediate training for large numbers of out of work logging and timber workers, the economic situation in the Southwest in the late 1990 was quite different. While some large timber mills were still being closed in1998-99, much of the industry had been lost even earlier. The human, social, and economic impacts of the large scale changes in timber production, while still being felt, had been absorbed in significant measure by the 70's, 80's, and early 90's. The large scale wood industry, active in Flagstaff , Durango , Snowflake, Espanola, Eagar, and Reserve among communities, had already been largely down sized by the early to mid 1990's. What remained was few small and moderate size businesses, family owned sawmills and logging companies, and a few adaptive businesses that converted their mills to smaller diameter materials or adapted their production to include fuel treatment, house log kits, large-scale landscaping for ski-areas, among other wood related services.

What woods workers who remained had to figure out ways to create small niche businesses such as producing higher-value beams for western home construction, turning posts to replicate a traditional Hispanic style, or created a whole new product such as Aspen paneling. These businesses sustained employment for a core number of wood workers, while others left the region, turned to other careers, or retired. What remains is a small number of wood production workers who still struggle to sustain themselves. This is an aging population for the most part, whose knowledge and experience is extremely valuable to the future success of wood production in the Southwest.

As community forestry continues to grow in the areas of forest restoration, and new products from undervalued wood materials remains a needed objective, there will be a gap in available skilled workers. In Catron County for example, whereas the old Stone Mill in Reserve employed upwards of a hundred persons, today only a handful of skilled workers remain who have not invested themselves in other employment or careers. It is unclear where future workers can be drawn from as the Catron mill expands to 15-20 employees.

In the early stages of economic development through community forestry, the Southwestern or Four Corners Region can fill its initial work force needs through reaching out to local people and small businesses. However, steady and moderate growth in employment to just meet the needs of forest restoration will require a work force that does not presently exist. For many workers this is somewhat difficult to contemplate because their most recent experience has been mere economic survival. How strongly can they contemplate an economic future in wood production tied to restoration forestry?

Given this history and context, the development of a skilled workforce will become an increasingly important question. What new careers will merge from the conversion of mills to small diameter products? What changes will come from increased mechanization of logging and thinning operations. How can labor force needs be met in a highly diversified economic environment that could include traditional milling, new wood composites, furniture manufacturing, biomass energy, ecological monitoring, and many other outcomes that must be integrated into a holistic restoration process? Answers to these questions will come from highly entrepreneurial businesses, hands-on technical workshops and training initiatives, state labor development programs, and state forester support of technical assistance and educational programs.



Lesson Learned

Whether defined in terms of new products or markets, innovative technology or small business entrepreneurship, or any number of other adaptations in harvesting and milling, the ultimate sustainability of restoration forestry in the Southwest is highly dependent upon the evolving economic infrastructure, capacity and resilience of small and moderate size businesses. There is a clear need to establish a partnership with this entrepreneurial sector.

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