A big challenge for the wood products industry: Recruitment of talented people

Henry Quesada

Professor and Extension Specialist

Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech

The second week of August 2021, Professor Bob Smith and I visited a few key members of our Center for Forest Products Business. In five days, we drove over 2400 miles and visited nine different states. We were looking for insights into the main issues impacting the wood products industry, specifically the hardwood industry. The industry in general feels positive and most businesses seem to be doing pretty well. Lumber prices are still up and there is hope that the situation will remain the same for a few more months. New construction and remodeling seem to be the main drivers impacting demand for wood products. However, we found that recruiting of talented people continues to be a critical issue for the industry.

Mills are having real difficulties in attracting not just production workers, but also middle and top management positions. The industry is overextending and trying to provide as many benefits as they can to lure prospective employees. Attracting production workers is perhaps the most problematic aspect. Without production workers, the mill cannot run. We stopped at a mill where one of the two production lines was idle because not enough people showed up to work that morning. Something that is just too hard to believe. In some cases, mills are offering start up rates up to $15/hour for a beginner position on the production floor. Mills also indicated that after a few days, some new production workers realized that the work at the mill is just too hard and quit. Other mills indicated that they are considering how to increase the level of automation in some of their processes to avoid idle time. This seems like a logical solution but the mills also realize that not every process or activity in the mill can be automated. In addition, the cost of automation is high and the payback time might take too long.

The case with middle and top management positions is different. Usually at this level, potential candidates are required to have at least an associate or a bachelor degree in wood science or a related field. However, the industry is having problems finding candidates with this requirement and in general the industry ends up hiring employees with degrees in business, engineering or technology. The caveat is that employees with this general education need plenty of training to understand the properties and manufacturing processes of wood products. In the end, employers need to make huge investments to bring new hires up to date in regards to wood science and wood products knowledge.

Community colleges and higher education universities are having problems attracting and recruiting high school graduates to their programs. High School juniors and seniors do not know about these degree programs and very rarely they directly apply for admission. In general senior high school students are, for the most part, able to connect and understand general college degrees such as business, engineering, technology, medical, arts or law. Nevertheless, high school graduates do not really know or have not heard much about careers in natural resources, specifically in wood science or related fields. However; the opportunity for wood science and related programs to connect with and attract new generations is significant as the youth of today are very sensitive to issues such as climate change, pollution, and environmental impact.

The connection of sustainability with wood science and related degrees is not the only benefit. Careers in these degrees have been traditionally very rewarding and well paid. Our new graduates in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech usually get three to four job offers with starting salaries at around $60,000 per year. We monitor very closely the progression of our graduates in the industry where we have seen a quick upward trajectory in most cases. Retention of talented middle and top managers in the industry wasn’t mentioned as a problem for the industry. Except for a few cases, most graduates in wood science and related programs have stayed in the industry their entire careers. This attests to the fact that college graduates in these careers found their jobs satisfying and very rewarding.