August 12, 2016

'THEO' is Getting Young People into the Logging Industry

Each year, approximately 18 young people in northwest Louisiana spend the summer learning the basics of logging in the Timber Harvesting Equipment Operator course (THEO). Most of them will have job offers waiting for them when they complete the course.

Entering its third year, THEO was developed to address the labor shortage problem in Louisiana’s logging industry. As I've noted in previous columns, young people simply are not considering logging as a career anymore, and this problem is compounded in Louisiana where the oil industry is so prevalent.

But THEO is more than a way to attract young people. It’s an example of how multiple stakeholders in the timber industry can work together to solve a problem.

One of the people who was the driving force behind the creation of THEO is Holly Morgan of the Society of American Foresters. When she and area logger Travis Taylor noticed that the loggers she works with were struggling to find crews, she decided to take action. "We lost a lot of logging contractors over the years (due to retirement). Nobody was coming up to replace them," she said. "So Travis and I dreamed up this idea of a training program to get young people into the business."

The goal was to expose young people to the fact that logging is a good career choice. "These are good-paying jobs, you're home every night, and you're working outdoors," she continued. "We need to get to kids who weren't sure what they wanted to do, and show them this is an option."

The three-month course is designed to give students a well-rounded view of logging. The first month is in the classroom, where students learn harvesting machine basics, including diesel engines, electrical and hydraulics. They also learn about the business of logging, OSHA regulations, CPR, and general safety. The second and third months are spent in the field, operating equipment and getting a feel for working in the woods.

Creating the course was the result of a true collaborative effort. Morgan had the help of several loggers, including Jack McFarland of McFarland Timber. "We started by creating a curriculum based on what anyone seeking a career in forestry should know," said McFarland. "I wrote the curriculum for feller-bunchers, other loggers wrote it for skidders, de-limbers and other machines."

Morgan, McFarland and the rest of the development team worked with the Louisiana state vocational school system to round out the curriculum and to get classrooms to hold the course. They also had the support of local timber mills, the insurance industry, the Louisiana Logging Council, the Louisiana Loggers Association, and the Louisiana Forestry Association.

Several retired loggers volunteered to teach the classroom portion of the course, while local loggers and land owners provided timber, machines and work sites for the field portion.

In 2015, John Deere and its dealer Doggett are providing a wheeled feller-buncher, skidder and knuckleboom loader for students to use in the course.

In its first two years, the course has graduated 15 students, which has benefitted the loggers in the area. "The demand has been tremendous. Everyone who graduates is offered a job," said Morgan. "Hopefully we’re changing how people look at logging. We want them to see it as a profession."

Despite its humble beginnings, the future looks bright for THEO. About 18 students are scheduled to enroll in the course this month, more than doubling the enrollment of the first two years. But McFarland has high hopes for the future.

For the last six years, McFarland and other loggers have been working with local schools to expose them to logging as a career at a young age. They’ve been working with local guidance counselors to teach high school kids about logging. They’ve even looked at younger kids. "We started going to elementary schools for career days," he said. "We have to get to these kids early to show them it's a fun, exciting career. We can't wait until they get out of school."

McFarland believes that in the next few years, THEO enrollment will increase because of this effort.

In addition, THEO is now an accredited course, and students can earn 15 credits through technical schools. The course is being moved to different locations around the state to try to attract young people from different areas. This year, the course will be held at Sabine Valley Technical College, in Many, Louisiana.

The result of this collaborative effort has been what McFarland and Morgan hope is the beginning of a new pipeline of young loggers entering the industry, and loggers in the area have benefitted.

It hasn't been easy, but Morgan believes the success they've had in Louisiana can be replicated in other areas. "We did it as volunteers, and it was hard," she said. "It takes a local group of loggers who are willing to donate their time and help with moving equipment and hauling timber."

But the alternative is not acceptable, according to Morgan. "If you don't do something (about the labor shortage) you can be marginalized out of the industry," she concluded, adding that she knows how loggers value their independence. "If you want to stay independent you have to think about the future. This is one way to do it."

If you are interested in learning more about the THEO curriculum or hiring a graduate, you can contact the THEO coordinator at 318-609-1230 or email louisianaloggingschool@gmail.com. Follow the THEO students on Facebook at LA2013THEO or visit the webpage: theola.homestead.com