Article by Tom Trone,
John Deere Forestry

This month, across the country, an annual rite of passage begins as students walk the halls of their high schools for the last time and begin their lives as adults. Among them are about 18 young people in northwest Louisiana who will take the first steps toward an exciting, lucrative career as loggers.

These young people will 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 Loisi­ana 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 aren’t sure what they want 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 month is spent in the field, operating equipment.

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, delimbers 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 mills, the insurance industry, the Louisiana Logging Council, the Louisiana Loggers Assn., and the Louisiana Forestry Assn.

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

In 2015, John Deere and its dealer, Doggett Machinery, are providing a feller-buncher, skidder and knuckleboom loader.

In its first two years, the course has graduated 15 students, which has benefitted 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.”

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 attract young people from different areas. This year, the course will be held at Sabine Valley Technical College, in Many, La.

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 coordinator at 318-609-1230 or louisianaloggingschool @gmail.com. Follow THEO students on Facebook at LA2013 THEO or visit the webpage: theo la.homestead.com.

Trone is Director of John Deere’s North American forestry business and is responsible for all sales and marketing activities as well as product development. Over his career, he has owned and operated several businesses. He is also a lecturer at the University of Illinois where he has taught the subjects of entrepreneurship, business strategy, organizational development and leadership.

SLT Note: Another equipment operator training effort, the roots of which go back to 2012, is the Forest Equipment Operator Training School, Inc. (FOROP). Originally an offshoot of the North Carolina loggers’ organization, FOROP now is a separate entity administered and applied by Doug Duncan and David Meiggs. With a small staff, it has graduated dozens of students, placing many with loggers in North Carolina and Virginia. To date FOROP has trained students on sites in North Carolina only but has plans to take the program to Virginia later this year. For more information, visit forop. org or contact Doug Duncan at 919-271-9050.