Help Wanted: Loggers For Tennessee’s $21 Billion Forest Industry

Stacks of wood at a mill in Giles County, Tennessee. Industry experts worry about an imminent shortage of loggers. (Photo credit: Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Stacks of wood at a mill in Giles County, Tennessee. Industry experts worry about an imminent shortage of loggers. (Photo credit: Bobby Allyn/WPLN)

Forestry groups are worried about a looming shortage of loggers. So much so that Tennessee’s forestry association and other groups have signed a letter of support for a federal bill allowing teenagers to start logging at 16.

Housing materials to paper production fuel Tennessee’s timber industry. The business may go unnoticed by average Tennesseans, but it’s significant: bigger than Nashville’s entire music business. In fact, timber products generate some $21 billion a year.

Ed Moore, a logger on the Tennessee-Alabama border, says not enough is being done to promote the trade.

“I couldn’t tell you how many different loggers are in the state. And I could count on one hand the number that are under the age of 50. And their kids don’t want to take over. It’s hard work.” 

Labor Law Vs. Family Tradition

The Tennessee Forestry Association and several other groups around the country have endorsed a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho.

Labrador is proposing to deregulate the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which bars anyone under 18 from working with logging equipment. An unintended consequence of that law, Labrador says, denies children of loggers “the opportunity to work and learn the family trade until they reach adulthood.”

Logging skills, like other trades, are passed along over generations, he says. And by the age of 18, many decide on career paths outside of the forestry business. Labrador’s bill would allow the children of loggers to get a jump start in the wood industry.

“We should not unfairly penalize young people who want to enter the logging industry and make it their career.” Labrador says. “My bill would remove the outdated regulations that are holding back the next generation of timber harvesters.”

Although data from the Tennessee Department of Labor indicates that logging employment has remained relatively stable since the recession, Adam Taylor, who studies the wood products industry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said many loggers work part-time, or are in and out of work, thus making it difficult to track their employment status.

Though logging may be stable now, Taylor says the aging population of the industry could have grave consequences in the coming years.

Dangerous And Expensive Work

Logging routinely ranks among as the most perilous job in the country. Equipment is costly. And many logging mills that went belly up during the recession never returned, according to Taylor. Consequently, there are fewer places to learn the trade.

“It’s a big concern, and a growing concern,” Taylor said. “Logging is becoming increasingly expensive to get involved with. Fuel costs are high. In addition, the cost of equipment is going up. And the old days when you could get by with a small skidder and a couple chainsaws, that isn’t the business model any more. It tends to be bigger, more expensive equipment — and insurance goes up.”

For smaller mills, the escalating price of equipment, and the difficult of securing loans, are real obstacles.

“It’s not an industry that bankers look upon favorably,” Taylor said. “Loggers are having a harder time getting the credit they need to purchase equipment because of the instability of the wood industry.”

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.