VALLEY COUNTY, IDAHO, Idaho — The timber industry labor shortage is considered a normalcy for second generation logger Gerry Ikola. He has been running the family business since the 1970's.
"It's been my life," Ikola said. "I grew up in it. I was going out in the woods when I was three. Ya know, it hasn't - it hasn't ever been just a job."
Despite Ikola's love for the course of his career, it is a job; a job that is not attracting new workers to the industry.
"We struggle to have a full crew. We always seem to be short somebody," Ikola said.
The average employee at Ikola's logging company, G. Ikola, is 55 years old. Many of his employees are knocking on the door of retirement.
"It concerns me that they're not gonna be out here working too much longer. I'm gonna have to replace them. Who am I gonna replace them with," Ikola said. "That's the perception: 'It's nothing but physical work.' And that's not the case at all anymore."
In the 1990's, Ikola hired 15 sawyers - people who cut down trees with chainsaws. Today, he only hires three. That's because the industry has changed significantly. Most loggers work in a cab and operate large equipment with series of buttons and joysticks.
"These pieces of equipment now are so mechanized, you get in and there's a lot of resemblance to gaming," Idaho Forest Products Commission Director, Jennifer Okerlund said. "The logging industry of today is not at all the logging industry of yesteryear."
The timber industry accounts for nearly $2.5 billon of Idaho's economy, according to Okerlund. The demand for timber products is only increasing, according to University of Idaho Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences Department head Charles Goebel.
The University of Idaho is working directly with Idaho Loggers to find a potential solution to the issue by offering a new degree program, Goebel said. The two-year program awards an associates degree in Forest Operations and Technology.
"We were being responsive to the forests products industry across the state," Goebel said.
It is one of the first associates degree's offered in university history.
"This is not a foresters degree. This is a degree to train individuals that are interested in going out and working in the forest operations sector on logging operations," Goebel said. "We really have a social contract with the citizens of the state to provide access to high quality and affordable education."
A solution is needed now, because Idaho lumber sales are increasing at rates far faster than loggers can produce, according to numbers from the University of Idaho.
"So, our industry is now faced with 'how are we gonna meet that demand of wood over the next 20 years?'" Ikola said.
Ikola and Okerlund both believe the Idaho degree will offer some relief to the industry; however, the problem itself is difficult to diagnose.
Ikola told KTVB he pays people fresh out of high school $25 an hour and provides specific on-site training. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show Idaho is the highest paying state for loggers in the entire country.
"So I don't think money is the problem exactly," Ikola said.
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