Scaling up technology in forestry is necessary and “nonetheless persistent”

David Pfleger, from Sierra Pacific Industries, keeps watch over lumber as it goes through a sorter at a plant. Photo credit: Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight

In the lumber industry, “automation” has never been a word to keep to yourself – in fact, it is the opposite: It makes harvesting timber safer and far more efficient. But it has also changed the industry intrinsically; demand for skilled workers to operate cutting-edge technologies is rising, but simultaneously, the very same technological advances mean that there need not be so many workers in the industry.

Len Lindstrand, a retired forester, told Record Searchlight that while the adoption of technology in the industry was a gradual process, it was nonetheless persistent. The introduction of state-of-the-art equipment has raised not only made timber harvesting more efficient, it has also demanded a higher level of skill needed to work in the industry.

“At the logging end, it requires a bit of training,” Lindstrand told Record Spotlight. “There is the computer assisted equipment in addition to being able to show up at the crack of dawn with your gloves and lunch to go to work.”

“Everyone in the forest now has been trained to be very productive per hour,” William Stewart, a forestry specialist from U.C. Berkeley, added. “People who work in planting trees, to thinning the forest, they’re all using big machines or they’re doing it three times as fast.”


Rorie Estrada, a sawyer at Sierra Pacific Industries, keeps a weather eye on the logs on the assembly line at the plant through monitors. Photo credit: Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight


The automation of the industry
Processing timber by automation is loud, noisy, and often manned by a few workers outfitted with goggles and ear plugs, having whittled down the number of labourers who would have traditionally and historically crowded the mills.

“The jobs are still here,” Mark Lathrop, a spokesman for Sierra Pacific Industries, the second-largest producer of lumber in the United States (U.S.) said. “We’re always hiring.”

Sierra Pacific Industries has some 135 staff in their sawmill, though for the most part, they work in maintenance, including electricians and mechanical engineers. The remainder are entry-level labourers.

“More than what it was in the past, we’re looking for people with degrees,” Lathrop added. “Foresters across the industry require a four-year degree and then some time under a forester in a sort of apprenticeship. These employees in the mill will receive some training, but their core skills will be transferable to other industries.”

Hot saws are another indication of the automation in the industry. Large and reminiscent of a bulldozer, they are capable of felling a tree in a few seconds compared to the hours it would have taken in the past.

Even just a few decades back, hot saws were a rare sight. Now, they are nothing short of an industry standard.

Operators who are certified in the use of heavy equipment in the logging industry are the new entry level workers, Michael Quinn, the spokesman for the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference told Record Spotlight. And they are in high demand because they understand the basics of how to operate equipment worth US$250,000 and how it moves.

Shasta College, in Redding, California, U.S., is one such college that is in the midst of writing a programme especially for students to familiarise themselves with the heavy equipment like hot saws and masticators used in the industry. The programme could be opened to students by 2018, as soon as approval is given by the state Community College Chancellor’s Office. Professionals from the industry are offering their views on how the programme should be run, and what logging companies can expect from new hires.

“We’d like to give students that in-house training that they would receive in the field.” John Livingston, a heavy equipment instructor at Shasta College, said.


Source: Record Spotlight