Logger training sought for tech college course

Opening conversations exploring prospects for establishing a training course for logging equipment operators were held at the Louisiana Technical College Huey P. Long Campus in Winnfield on July 23.

Initiated by a group of area logging contractors and compensation insurance providers, the proposal was heard and discussed with Sondra C. Redmon, director of the Workforce Investment Board Area 60 of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, and Danny Keyes, director of the recently opened and expanded Huey P. Long campus. A second meeting was scheduled one week later on Tuesday, July 31 with area members of the Louisiana Legislature and U.S. Congress, to explore funding and other authorizations needed to establish the course.

Logging contractors, including Travis Taylor of Goldonna, Mickey Hawkins of Saline, and Jack McFarland of Winnfield, each said that the availability of trained heavy equipment operators is scarce, and the cost of recruiting and training operators is expensive and frequently hit or miss in terms of bringing trainees up to professional skill level with on the job training.

Equipment used in timber harvesting is massive, expensive, and utilizes computerized technology which must be mastered for efficient and safe operation. A typical new harvesting machine can cost upwards of a quarter million dollars or more, and an unskilled or careless operator can disable it, causing damage to the equipment, or injury to workers, with poor operating skills or neglected routine maintenance.

"Working in the woods today is a highly skilled profession," the contractors agreed. "You don't just pick up a chain saw and go out there cutting trees."

Contractor McFarland, who is also president of the Winn Parish Police Jury, said the public may get a false impression from some of the action shows on TV. "We aren't the Swamp People, that grab an axe and go storming through the woods screaming at each other."

Another real problem in the logging industry, expressed by all the contractors present, is the "aging out" of family loggers. In prior years, many of the new loggers entering the business have been the sons and grandsons of successful loggers, who grew up in the family business and took over when the elders retired.

Today, the "logging family" model no longer functions as in the past, as younger sons opt to seek higher education for other professions. Working hand-in-hand with this trend is the continuing mechanization of logging, meaning the profession requires fewer, but more technically trained people, and a higher level of financial ability to acquire the necessary equipment and machines to do the work.

Referring to financial ability, one logging contractor recently said, "It used to be I could walk into the local bank, tell the president I wanted to buy a $250,000 piece of equipment, and he'd say, 'Sign here.' It ain't that way anymore," in today's financial environment.

Danny Keyes, director of the new technical college, told the industry people, "If you can put together the skill sets that need to be taught, we can develop a curriculum and help you make it happen."

One program already in effect, discussed as a possible model for the local program, is the Forestry Equipment Operator Program operated by the North Carolina Department of Labor Apprenticeship Program. Several equipment manufacturers partner with the Department of Labor to furnish equipment, for the training which includes classroom time and work on live logging sites.

In addition to the Workforce Commission District Director, the Technical College director, and the three logging contractors, those attending and participating in the discussion were Doug Wells of The Timbermen's Fund, a workers compensation provider; Holly Morgan, of U.S. Forest Service in Alexandria; George Ramsey, forester, of Crowell Lumber Company at Longleaf; Jimmy L. Standley, manager, Louisiana Loggers Association and Self Insured Fund, a workers compensation provider; Tom Kelly and Ronald Skains, of The Piney Woods Journal; and Katie Skains, accompanying her father.