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.

2021 CFPB report: Letter from the Director

Hello from your Center,

It has been 18 months since the pandemic hit us and changed our world forever. Often when I traveled in Asia I would see people wearing masks for what I thought was no reason. Today it is common place everywhere, and I no longer think about why. Somehow our industry has managed to do well during these unprecedented times. We saw record softwood prices and many hardwood species did very well this past year. The housing market continues to be very strong and is predicted to continue to grow. Exports are down and imports are down. We all are getting fatigued of various lockdowns and the daily reminder of how many people are sick, or what small business in our neighbored had to close its doors due to Covid-19. Yet, the economy keeps plugging away behind all the masks. The positive side of this is businesses are finding new ways to satisfy customer needs which will help them in the future and new businesses are being created that will serve us better after this pandemic has passed.

Another year has passed and we welcomed 140+ students back in late August. Many of you have hired them for summer internships. When we visit with you, internships are one of the major factors’ employers are looking for when they hire new permanent workers. Our job fairs have gone on-line in the spring and fall, so if you want to participate, please let me know. There is no substitute for good experiences in your mills or offices. We again thank you for helping our students gather this valuable experience.

Dr. Henry Quesada and I visited a number of your companies in August to see how we could better serve you and identify the issues we should be focusing on for our training of students. As you know, finding qualified employees is one of the largest issues our industry faces. That is why the Center was stared in 1992 and have provided hundreds of students to you over the years. The comments for educational needs from the partners we visited included communication skills, team building, data analysis, positive attitude, personal initiative and technical knowledge. We attempt to include these skills in our classes, but I am the first to admit, it is difficult to change attitudes and work ethics of eighteen to twenty-year students. You will have to continue to reinforce these values regularly as you hire new employees.

 I want to thank you for your continued support of our programs. I hope you will contact us with your needs for employees or summer interns. Many of our classes have projects and if you need a short specific project investigated, please contact me and I will see if we can work it into a class. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or suggestions to improve the program (rsmith4@vt.edu). Again, thanks for your support of our students and I wish you a successful year.

Sincerely,

Bob Smith

For a full report of the Center activities, please follow this link.

New Grant will Continue to pursue Hardwood lumber for Cross-laminated Timber (CLT)*

By Henry Quesada

*Published in the August 2019 Newsletter of the Virginia Loggers Association

The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Tech has secured $249,000 from the US Forest Service to continue research on the use of hardwood lumber for the manufacturing of structural cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels.

Currently, there is no market for hardwood lumber in structural CLT panels because APA/PRG 320, the CLT standard, does not allow it. According to the standard, only softwood lumber can be used for structural CTL panels. However, a CLT mill interested in manufacturing and selling hardwood CLT panels for structural use could pursue a custom certification by a third party to make hardwood CLT panels available to the construction market.

CLT panel made of yellow poplar

In this project, Virginia Tech will work with Smartlam in Montana to produce CLT panels made of yellow poplar. The panels will be tested by APA. Hardwood organizations such as the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers, the National Hardwood Lumber Association, and the Hardwood Manufacturers Association are partnering with Virginia Tech to promote the project among their members and to find potential donors of yellow poplar lumber for the manufacturing of the CLT panels to be tested.

Another barrier that this new project is addressing is the structural grading of hardwood lumber. Currently, grading of hardwood lumber is based on appearance and not on structural performance. Rules to grade hardwood lumber have been developed but no one producing hardwood lumber is using these rules, mostly because there is no market for structural hardwood lumber. This new grant will work with NELMA, a grading agency, to train hardwood sawmills on structural grades for hardwood lumber.

Other factors that might impact the use of hardwood lumber for structural CLT panels are:

  • Prices: Prices of #1 and #2 softwood lumber are usually less than $450 per thousand board feet. However, species such as yellow poplar and soft maple might have a chance to compete in terms of prices.
  • Volume: A medium size CLT mill will produce around 50,000 m3 or 21.2 million board feet per year. An average hardwood sawmill produces less than 20 million board feet per year. Several hardwood sawmills would work together in order to supply lumber to such a CLT mill.
  • Dimensions: Hardwood lumber is currently produced in random widths and CLT panels require fixed widths.
  • Adhesion: Chemical companies have been able to produce glues that work very well with softwood species such as spruce, Douglas fir, and southern yellow pine. The same glues have been used successfully with yellow poplar but other hardwood species might require a different formulation.

The market for CLT panels in the US is expected to reach over 2 million m3 or 850 million board feet in the next 10 years. The current manufacturing capacity in the US is less than 200,000 m3. This represents a huge opportunity for the hardwood industry.

If you have any questions about this project, please contact Dr. Henry Quesada at quesada@vt.edu.

2018 Annual Report of the Center for Forest Products Business

Dear Colleagues: It is hard to believe that another year has gone by and I am here wondering again what to share with you about the Center.  Three months ago, we graduated 40 students from our program and some of them are now working in your companies. Our department’s undergraduate program has grown to nearly … Continue reading “2018 Annual Report of the Center for Forest Products Business”

Dear Colleagues:

Dr. Robert Smith, Director the Center for Forest Products Business

It is hard to believe that another year has gone by and I am here wondering again what to share with you about the Center.  Three months ago, we graduated 40 students from our program and some of them are now working in your companies. Our department’s undergraduate program has grown to nearly 200 students, and it is probably the largest in the country.  We believe the changes we have made in recent years regarding our undergraduate degrees and our name change are starting to attract a broader range of students to our profession.  I have often told students that our program is the applied field of business, engineering, physics, or chemistry to our natural resources and wood.  Whether it is the student who has a business interest and wants to go into international marketing or the student who has an engineering interest and wants to lean up your mill, our undergraduate program allows students to apply these disciplines to wood products. We remain committed to providing the best marketing, manufacturing, and business education in forest products in North America.  Our goal remains to attract and train good students who can help your companies compete in this changing world marketplace.

I have now completed six years as the department head.  It is nice being back in the department with my colleagues and directing such a successful endeavor.  We are fortunate to have some of the leading scientists in our field working in the department. I want to thank those of you who took time to visit us this past year and spend time with our students.  Your interest and experience help us demonstrate the great opportunities that exist for careers in wood products.  Students always comment on how they love to hear from our industry partners. Your internships, scholarships and job opportunities demonstrate the partnership that is needed to help us attract and train your future employees. If you would like to visit the department and speak with our students, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Your center has had a good year.  Our faculty accomplishments are listed later in this report. We awarded over $25,000 of scholarships in 2017 and will award nearly that amount again in 2018. Your donations make this possible and allow us to better train our students for this changing wood products industry. We have updated our website to provide more information, so please visit us at http://www.cfpb.vt.edu    I thank you for your continued support of our center. If there is anything I can do, please feel free to contact me at 540-231-7679 or rsmith4@vt.edu.

Follow this link to download the full report.

 

SBIO Department participates at the 2016 Expo Richmond

Blacksburg, VA. The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials (SBIO) had an active participation during the 2016 Expo Richmond. The machinery exposition is organized by the Virginia Forest Products Association (VFPA) and it is co-sponsored by the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) at Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Forestry. The show attracts thousands … Continue reading “SBIO Department participates at the 2016 Expo Richmond”

Blacksburg, VA. The Department of Sustainable Biomaterials (SBIO) had an active participation during the 2016 Expo Richmond. The machinery exposition is organized by the Virginia Forest Products Association (VFPA) and it is co-sponsored by the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) at Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Forestry. The show attracts thousands of industry members, industry organizations, and wood hobbies who come to get a glimpse of new developments related to software and hardware in the forestry and forest products industries.

Dr. Brian Bond, professor at the SBIO Department presents on the latest development in vacuum drying technology
Dr. Brian Bond, professor at the SBIO Department presents on the latest development in vacuum drying technology

This year the trade show kicked off with the SBIO Department presenting an innovative educational session that included speakers from Virginia Tech, the US Forest Service, and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC).

For the following two days the SBIO Department along with other members of the CNRE at VT, showcased new research and short-course opportunities, and delivered short courses to visitors coming to the Expo Richmond. As usual many fellow Hokies stopped by our booth to greet and catch-up on latest developments. The Expo Richmond is also a great venue to network and reconnected with industry and industry organizations that hire a good portion of the graduates from the SBIO Department.

Drs. Brian Bond and Henry Quesada enjoy Smokey Bear's visit to the SBIO Department booth.
Drs. Brian Bond and Henry Quesada enjoy Smokey Bear’s visit to the SBIO Department booth.