Wanted: Log truck drivers—will train
By SHOLEH PATRICK Northwest Mining and Timber Editor
Taken from Fall Issue of NW Mining and Timber in the Sept 26, 2018 edition of CDA Press and Shoshone News-Press
Feedback and suggestions appreciated at Sholeh@cdapress.com.
Not interested in a four-year degree? How does $250 to $300 a day sound, after just weeks of training (you say when) — no experience necessary?
Work in the forest. Be home at night. Job practically guaranteed.
Log truck drivers are desperately wanted in Idaho. That’s for women, too; technology has made this an equal opportunity market.
- The shortage.With a nationwide freight driver shortage surpassing 63,000, bigger forest fires driving coordinated efforts at fuels reduction, and a robust local timber industry, logging contractors are increasingly in demand. So folks at Idaho Forest Group (IFG), North Idaho College, and Wes Olson Trucking have joined forces for a solution: A new log truck driving course to be delivered by NIC’s Workforce Training Center. With a tentative October launch (pending the hiring of an instructor) the course is affordable, adaptable to students’ schedules, and very hands-on, thanks to a log truck donated by IFG on Aug. 30.
Tom Schultz is IFG’s Vice President of Government Affairs, and former director of the Idaho Department of Lands. “We already have a relationship with NIC helping with millwright programs, along with other industry partners. When we acquired a mill in St. Regis, we saw an opportunity to supply a log truck to them.”
Idaho Forest Group is the eighth largest forest products producer in the United States. Its concerns about the driver shortage are representative of the industry.
“The industry has been concerned about the huge shortage of log truck drivers,” said Mitzi Michaud, NIC’s Workforce and Community Education Coordinator. “They really take care of their contractors, so Beti Becker with IFG approached (Workforce Training Center Director) Marie Price about donating the log truck, and how could we implement that into a program that might recruit log truck drivers for contractors in the area.”
- Costs.No other school in the area offers this log truck component of commercial driving. Developed as a pilot project, the course will fall under the Workforce Training Center’s Wood Products Center for Excellence umbrella (WPCFE). Director Price is working with Idaho Department of Labor to develop a registered apprenticeship for log truck driving in 2019, which would effectively help students fund their training through an employer.
The course is currently priced at $2,399 (more if CDL is needed), with some scholarships available. The Center already offers registeredapprenticeship programs for other timber industry jobs.
“We are committed to working with the timber industry on their workforce development needs,” said Director Marie Price. “That’s the mission of the WPCFE — to expand business productivity and provide workforce opportunities for the community, with curriculum delivery methods for training on the job or training at a
- The course.The log truck driving course is for both students with an existing commercial driver’s license, as well as those who don’t have one yet. Once the CDL component (already available at NIC) is satisfied, students focus on the log truck component, the vast majority of which focuses on actual driving, practicing on industry-owned or vacated forest roads with the log truck donated by IFG. Students will also spend time at IFG’s Chilco mill, to become familiar with the loading and unloading process, driving loaded vs. unloaded trucks, and weigh station procedure.
Total time is estimated at 52 hours, but the course will be adaptable to the individual student’s skills, progress, and schedule availability. The emphasis, said Michaud, will be on practice. Driving a log truck is different from other types of loads.
“When you drive in the woods, it’s not like a highway at all,” explained Jim Olson, owner of Wes Olson Trucking in Sandpoint, and who has been driving trucks since he was 17. “The roads are narrow — often single lane, so you have to be very aware of your trailer, you have to watch the road edge. Some places are steep; there are switchbacks to negotiate.”
- Job prospects and pay. Another difference between this and other trucking jobs is that log truck drivers tend be home at night — these are not typically long hauls. In contrast to other truck drivers who spend many nights away from home, with logging that’s uncommon.
Most logging contractors pay by the load, rather than hour. However, according to the Idaho Department of Labor the median hourly rate works out to about $16, with more than 26 annual job openings in north Idaho alone.
Others might call those numbers low; some local log truck drivers make the equivalent of $25 hourly. However, that’s not 365 days a year; Olson is careful to point out that for about two months in spring, load restrictions on roads make work less available.
“In most companies drivers are paid a percentage of the truck — the value of what they’re hauling,” said Olson, whose father started Wes Olson Trucking in 1961.
“We bid jobs by the rate, by the ton, or by the load. So if the company gets $20 per ton, the driver may make $5 to $7 per ton. I try to get my guys $300 a day.”
Olson also offers a retirement plan and medical insurance, and says he needs drivers now. Idaho Forest Group employs 1,100 people and about 2,000 contractors, with growing opportunities for several types of workers — training provided.
“For those who love the outdoors and want to work in Idaho, and still be home in the evenings, this is a great profession,” said Price.
Why the shortage? Olson may have started at 17, but that’s no longer possible. Federal law requires commercial interstate truck drivers to be at least 21. That could change if the Drive-Safe Act or other age-lowering legislation passes Congress. Laws also limit time on the road (due to fatigue).
Many drivers are older and beginning to retire. According to the American Trucking Association the driver shortage is expected to reach 174,000, and require 900,000 new truck drivers, by 2026.
The need will just increase, according to Schultz (who replaced Bob Boeh when he retired this year). This need is driving changes across the industry.
“In the 2014 farm bill there was a provision to allow for more active state management, and the 2018 omnibus bill allows more flexibility in road construction and maintenance, so I see an increase in timber sales volume in the national forests,” added Schultz.
“We are anticipating a 30 percent increase in Region 1 (Idaho and Montana) timber sales on the national forests over the next three years.”
- Image counts.Idaho’s low unemployment rate of 2.8 percent is only one factor which makes attracting new workers a challenge for any industry. In this case, image is another.
“When people think about truck driving, you think long hours away from home,” said Schulz, a forester by training. “People want more stability and life quality… But this project focuses on shorter hauls, such as log and chip hauling. They’re typically home at night.
Our focus is to get more log truck drivers for Idaho specifically.” Alan Harper oversees the harvest-to-mill process as Resource Manager for IFG and is facilitating the course development. With 19 years on the job and an education in forestry, he believes there is misunderstanding about what a log truck driver’s job is really like. In addition to erroneously assuming trucking always means overnight duty, Harper says if someone hasn’t grown up working in the woods, they may feel intimidated by the prospect.
“When someone unfamiliar with our industry sees a log truck going down the road, they think you have to have special education or skills to do that kind of stuff,” Harper continued. “Even for people who drive regular freight trucks, they don’t believe they can do this, maybe because they have to drive on dirt roads. It’s just not on people’s radar. “Our hope is to be able to tap into people who’ve never considered driving a log truck or working in the woods, and give them the opportunity to get that training. It’s a codependent industry.
Why is a timber company helping its contractors? Working together is typical of modern timber, even among competitors. Other area timber and wood products companies such as Potlatch Group and Stimson Lumber have collaborated along with IFG on other workforce development projects, developing NIC’s saw filing and log scaling courses, apprenticeships, and other projects.
While smaller contractors may not have the staff or resources to conduct marketing or course development efforts such as this one, big lumber companies do.
“Speaking for IFG our belief is that we are all one big business, almost a family,” said Harper. “Without the log truck drivers and contractors, we wouldn’t have sawmills. We want our logging truck contractors to be successful, because if they’re successful so are we.”
Harper and Olson say both mills and logging contractors need more workers, especially younger ones, to replace an older, retiring workforce. As Olson put it, there’s a lot of gray hair out there.
“Somebody who just walks in and passes the drug test and a physical — we are hiring people every day,” said Harper. “This (course) is no silver bullet; it’s not going to happen right away.
But this industry is a good way to make a living, especially if you’re not college bound.”
For the sake of industry and local economies, they hope the bullet hits its mark.