Like many skilled trades, the trucking arm of the timber industry is suffering from a workforce shortage. As seasoned drivers have retired, a new generation hasn’t emerged to take their place. Trucks are sitting idle, and businesses are losing potential earnings. According to Smith, one company alone had 30 trucks that were available for use last year but lacked anyone who could drive them.
Something needed to change. When Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council (PacMtn) — a nonprofit that serves Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis, Mason, and Thurston counties — heard about the shortage, it hosted a top-level meeting among local timber business leaders to discuss ways to help. The result was a pilot program, funded through PacMtn and designed with substantial input from locally based logging companies, to train and certify new drivers. The pilot, conducted through Grays Harbor College, has now led to a full-fledged log truck driver-training program, one of the few of its kind in the nation.
The college now offers a 60-hour, three-credit program for drivers who hold a current Class A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) or students who complete the college’s CDL program. From the beginning it was clear that this would be unlike any program the school had ever created.
“I’ve learned more about log truck driving than I ever thought possible,” said Nancy Estergard, Workforce and Community Education Coordinator at GHC. “We’ve dealt with fuel carts, insurance, road permits, title transfers, and securing huge trucks in order to make this work.”
The course already has attracted attention from businesses in Florida, Wisconsin, Montana, Georgia, and Minnesota. “Because this is one of only a few log truck-training programs in the country, companies from around the U.S. will send their staff to get this valuable training,” said Cheryl Fambles, executive director of PacMtn.
The initial pilot program funding was allocated for retraining dislocated workers, and although the current program is open to everyone, the pilot experience provided valuable feedback, according to Estergard. “The pilot helped us see what we really needed to make it work. It’s a new program, and when you try something for the first time, you find all the things you wish you’d done before you started.”
GHC made sense as a potential home for the course because the college already had a CDL program. However, there’s a major difference between driving a big rig on the highway and guiding a log truck up mountains and through forests. In the pilot program, students did ride-alongs with experienced drivers to determine whether the field was truly for them. That component proved costly, since drivers had to be pulled from their regular routes to train candidates, and it has since been scrapped. But even without it, said Estergard, instructors can gauge the capacity of their students. “If you talk to a seasoned driver, they can tell you in five minutes if someone is going to be a good log truck driver.”
For the current program, industry experts created a planning committee to design curriculum, with the Washington Contract Loggers Association in a guiding role. “It’s been a huge collaborative effort,” said Smith. Port Blakely and Weyerhaeuser allowed drivers in training to practice on their lands, and R.L. Smith and Weyerhaeuser donated trucks to GHC. Other project partners include B&M Logging, Bucks Logging, ENB Blogging, MacMillan Logging, McKay and Sons, and the Washington Trucking Association.
Once the committee approved the curriculum, it still had to clear the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and then the accreditation phase. Then came another challenge: where to find instructors. Estergard found a retired Weyerhaeuser driver with nearly 40 years of experience to take the lead. “He’s been instrumental in letting me know what we need,” she says. “The committee has also been great when I ask questions.” A second instructor has joined the team, and she continues to search for a third.
Once it’s fully operational, the program will fund itself. For every load of logs delivered, payment will go back into the program, which is open to the public. Applicants are required to pass drug and alcohol screening, complete the CDL program, and pass a Department of Transportation physical.
Smith believes it will attract some existing commercial drivers who want to work closer to home. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job, but you can be home at night instead of 5,000 miles away,” she said. “Wages are increasing, and the pay is competitive. A lot of people are coming out of the military who already have some training.”
For logging companies, it’s an opportunity to gain personnel without having to train them yourself, she noted. “Some people who are already in the industry want to change jobs. Now, if we have operators that have an interest in driving, we can send them there. With industry support, this is going to be a great program.”
Head image sources, public domain images: R6, State & Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection, JOHN DICKINSON via flickr