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Maintaining productivity in the logging industry

Adoption of machines with larger capacities and increased capabilities have helped firms increase productivity over time. USDA Forest Service photo by Mathew Smidt.

Across the U.S., the logging industry population has declined for the last two decades. USDA Forest Service scientist Mathew Smidt contributed to a study investigating changes in employment and profitability in the logging industry. Mingtao He, a graduate student at Auburn University, led the study.

Since 1997, the population decline meant fewer young people were entering the logging industry, when older employees retired. Logging occupations may be less competitive than other local jobs that offer higher pay, better benefits, easier working conditions, and more steady work.

The South employs more loggers than any other U.S. region: 25,575 as of 2017, after a 30% reduction since 1997. The West is the second largest employer of loggers with 12,553.

To improve worker safety and productivity, trees are mostly felled and processed with machines rather than chainsaws. Technical advancement in machines has reduced the number of fallers and other forest workers, while equipment operator numbers have held steady.

Labor productivity rates increased for nearly all states, but hours worked declined. Employees worked fewer hours but produced more per hour. Basically, the industry is doing more with less.

Tracking logging industry employment and profitability is challenging. “In the past, when logging was part of the manufacturing sector, the census of manufacturing tracked logging employment, capital, and productivity,” says Smidt. “After NAFTA was enacted, logging was moved under the agriculture sector, and those capital and productivity data were no longer collected.”

The researchers extracted data from Occupational Employment Statistics, Quarterly Workforce Indicators, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, FIA’s Timber Product Output reports, and Producer Price Index.

“This paper brings a variety of databases together to better understand employment and profitability in the U. S. logging industry,” says Smidt. “Stringing these snapshots together shows that the logging industry has remained productive despite its decreasing workforce.” Given the increased thinning required to meet the needs of the nation’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, this is a welcome finding.

Read the article in the journal Forests. For more information, email Mathew Smidt at mathew.smidt@usda.gov.

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