You see very little of it in local or national media these days. But this nation is undergoing a major societal shift in how and which workers fit into key industries, mostly because of changing employment trends and automation. Our little Southwest “timber town” is an example.
Cutting trees, hauling them to mills and processing them into all sorts of wood products has been the major industry and employment here for over a hundred years. Generations of men have followed their fathers into the forests or the mills or both. The economic health of timber companies has been key to the health of the entire county. Always has been. Most people thought it would continue. But it won’t.
Caught in the national economic mess of the last couple of years, our county unemployment level hit more than 14% and currently stands at 12.7%. County commissioners, local service agencies like food banks and others who deal with people needing help, will tell you our real percentage of unemployed, underemployed and those not eligible for unemployment assistance is better than 20%. Possibly even 25%.
Still, as I write this column, there are nine mill or forest jobs being advertised on the local pages of the Oregon Dept. Of Employment. And have been for several days. Because of the old timber industry communications “grapevine,” most jobs never used to get to the advertising stage. So, with our high unemployment – real and suspected – why are there nine openings at Job Service just today?
The answer to that has several parts tied to those changes mentioned above. One reason seems to be, because of the multi-year high level of joblessness, some workers moved away, trying to find better opportunity some place else. I hope they did.
Another factor: many former workers have given up. So, while our unemployment percentage has dropped a bit, one reason is those people aren’t being counted any more. So that shoots some of the “good news” about a lower rate.
Still others have decided to get out of the timber business. Our local community college has a record number of non-traditional – read older – students studying for new careers at the moment. Nursing, basic phases of wine making and auto repair are some of the most popular. They’re not looking to go back.
But maybe the most important reason those jobs are out there is that the companies haven’t found workers – former and current – who have the training for the new ways things are being done. As in every other manufacturing field, timber is changing, too. Modernizing, if you will.
Several years ago, a plywood mill burned down near here. Over 200 people out of work. When rebuilt two years later, half as many people had jobs. The rest weren’t needed because of computerized improvements. Logs in some new mills can go from intake to dimensioned lumber for stacking without anyone touching them. If a guy hasn’t got the training – or hasn’t been retrained – he’s out. Simple as that.
It’s everywhere. Drew Greenblatt owns Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore, MD. He makes wire baskets and used to pay a guy $6 an hour to hand-bend 300 pieces of wire each hour. Now he pays one guy $22 an hour; the one operating the robot that bends 20,000 pieces an hour! Merlin Steel had $800,000 in sales in 1998. Last year, $3.9 million in 33 countries. Automation makes products faster and makes them better, according to Greenblatt. Fewer people, better quality product, less reorders, ship orders faster and he’s not going back.
The timber business has been slow to change in some places. But a lot of the larger, international operators have been upgrading right along. If Home Depot, for example, wants several million board feet of dimensioned lumber, a worker at a mill in Cottage Grove, OR, pushes a button and the assembly line is reshaped for just what Home Depot wants. Electronically. Every piece.
Smaller operations in our county are changing bit by bit. During these last two years, some of them have been quietly upgrading equipment and streamlining both mills and staffing. A guy who used to use a peavy pole to shove logs around the mill pond before the recession likely will never see another such pole in his lifetime. Even if he’s rehired. A small, specially built boat, operated by one man can do the work a half dozen used to do with their poles.
In our county, automation and resulting employment trends are changing the structure of our major industry, the types of people needed to operate the new tools and requiring skills at much higher levels. In your county, it may be fishing or manufacturing or farming. Even with high unemployment and weak markets for many things, the shifting is going on. Quietly, mostly. But it’s there.
Which means we’re not likely to see unemployment down in the 4-5% range anytime soon. If ever again. Nothing’s as constant as change. Nothing.