The first Mechanized Logging Program took place in Millinocket during the summer of 2017. The success of the program has been dependent on the support and collaboration of many, including businesses who donated equipment and the use of their land. Credit: Courtesy of Northern Maine Community College

OLD TOWN, Maine — Expecting to lose an average of 200 workers each year for the next decade, Maine’s logging industry’s plan to meet the rising demand seems to be working.

This summer marks the fourth year of the Mechanized Logging Operations Program, which was created through a partnership between the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, three community colleges and other industry partners.

The program, which is open to anyone with a GED, is addressing a myriad of problems that have plagued the industry in recent years — such as high training costs and a growing workforce shortage — as mills around the state expand or reopen after a time when the market appeared to be collapsing.

Between 2008 and 2016, at least six mills shut their doors, laying off hundreds of workers in the process. But reopenings over recent years have created hope for some formerly defunct mill communities.

Maine’s logging and trucking industries generated an estimated $619 million in 2017, according to a new economic impact study, released Thursday by Professional Logging Contractors of Maine in conjunction with University of Maine researchers. The study results came from surveys given to 150 of the organization’s member companies last summer to gauge the industry’s economic impact the previous year. Forty-four percent responded, accounting for 833 full-time equivalent positions in the industry in 2018.

Between 2010 and 2018, the industry experienced a 9.4 percent drop in its workforce, and industry leaders are expecting to lose another 2,000 employees by 2030 — mostly due to retirement, according to a February 2019 report of employment and wages conducted by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research and Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.

Wage competition from other labor jobs have posed another problem to the logging industry, especially as young workers search for jobs with the highest pay possible, said Dana Doran, executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.

[Study for Maine loggers group cites low pay as barrier to industry growth]

The mechanized operations program was created to counter workforce loss by training people who want to enter the field, giving them the experience needed to get a job immediately.

“We’re slowly building a base,” he said, referring to the 29 graduates in the past three years who all received job offers in the field before they even completed the training. While not all of them accepted jobs, the program has maintained a 75 percent retention rate in the industry.

“It feels like there’s renewed interest because of more investment in the state,” Doran said, adding that recent investments in pulp mills — specifically in Old Town and Rumford — have boosted the industry.

“There’s [a] different lifeblood right now.”

The program has “significantly decreased” the burden of costs on contractors who otherwise would have to train employees who have little experience operating logging equipment. Owners can invest the savings in their companies, Doran said.

Between salary, training and equipment fees, a new hire with zero logging experience costs Maine’s contractors an average of $100,000 in the first year. Contractors who responded to last year’s survey spent more than $21 million on new or used equipment in 2018.

Some of the industry’s success is due to improved communication between leaders, partners and contractors on what is needed to keep moving forward, according to some technical high school forestry instructors.

“That’s the part that was missing for years,” said Rodney Spiller, who has taught forestry and wood harvesting at Farmington’s Foster Career and Technical Education Center for the past eight years.

Maine’s four technical high school forestry programs contribute to the worker pool by training students to use mechanized logging equipment, preparing them to enter the workforce after graduation.

The industry also introduced an emphasis on safety training with modern harvesting equipment after realizing that loggers were frequently getting hurt on the job.

With the development of safety training programs, injuries and illnesses among Maine’s loggers dropped 79 percent between 1988 and 2016, according to a 2018 report from the Certified Logging Professional program.

Al Shaeffer, a forestry and wood harvesting instructor at Oxford Hills Technical School, remembers a time when loggers had virtually no safety training before heading into the woods with their chainsaws and cable skidders.

“Guys were getting hurt left and right,” he said, recalling an old, familiar motto workers frequently tossed around: “You’re not a real logger until you get hurt.”

While mechanized equipment has improved safety, some workers still miss the “boots on the ground” aspect to the job, Shaeffer said. Modern equipment also poses its own risks to worker health, such as obesity and problems associated with repetitive motion.

Last year, 55 candidates applied for 15 spots in the 12-week mechanized logging training. Potential students have to demonstrate interest and motivation for entering the logging industry, and while it’s not a requirement to have experience working heavy equipment, it’s important.

“[The program is] a struggle for someone without any experience operating heavy machinery,” he said. All students spend close to 400 hours over 12 weeks operating the equipment.

The program is tuition free, although students must cover their own housing, transportation and food costs. In years past, the annual training has been held in the East Millinocket-Medway area, Ashland and Stratton. This summer, it will take place in the Old Town-Lincoln woods.