Manning the mill

Like many employers, Stimson Lumber is on the hunt for skilled labor
by: Chase Allgood, Dennis Tracey, of Stimson Lumber, made an early morning pitch at Forest Grove High School last week, encouraging seniors to consider a career in forest management. Tracey, the company’s human resource director, says it’s increasingly challenging to find skilled workers for the company’s Gaston mill.

A picturesque scene unfolds along the winding road to Henry Haag Lake. Just beyond a blind curve on Scoggins Valley Road, a lumber mill appears on the left. Steam billows from three gray towers against a background of hilly woods and farmland.

It's a snapshot from a time when

mill jobs were a family tradition in western Washington County.

These days, however, Stimson Lumber Co., which started in 1932, operates in a highly competitive and rapidly changing business environment. Although its mill west of Gaston seems as busy as ever, the company faces serious challenges in its effort to hire skilled employees.

That's why Dennis Tracey headed out to Forest Grove High School last Monday morning to give a pitch to seniors who might be interested in forest-management careers.

Tracey, Stimson's human resource manager, has been at the forefront of the battle to find enough employees with the technical skills to meet the company's evolving needs.

'These jobs are not very sexy,' Tracey told the News-Times. 'They get dirty and work in the mud and rain. It takes a certain type of individual to work in this industry.'

Stimson is based in Portland, but has facilities throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Washington County mill, with 450 workers, is the fourth largest employer in the area.

As finding the type of skilled employees they need becomes more difficult, it's moving to the top of their priority list.

'We hired a full-time recruiter who just calls people. That's how hard it is to find people who want to work,' explained Tracey.

The problem is not unique to Stimson. Companies all over the country are trying to decide how to deal with an increasing shortage of willing skilled laborers.

'There have been changes in labor laws that don't allow for people to come in on their own time and learn useful skills,' Tracey notes. 'Now you have to pay people who are learning the ropes.'

In addition, he said, budget cuts and a focus on academic test scores prompted many high schools to drop technical programs that often gave kids the skills needed for an entry level mill job.

'High schools have changed their focus: they just wanted to get kids into college,' Tracey said.' Some individuals are more hands on, and they lose out when these programs get dropped.'

Many schools in Washington County followed the national trend at the time and dropped their vocational programs about 20 years ago.

While Forest Grove High School has been able to retain its woodworking and metal classes, other districts have swapped them out for college-track classes.

'We used to have several wood shop and metal shop classes,' said Maureen Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the Beaverton School District. 'We don't have a whole lot of them anymore.'

This is the problem that Stimson and Tracey are tackling head-on.

Stimson began a journeyman millwright program in 2001. The program takes high school graduates and puts them into classes and on-the-job training programs that directly prepare them to become millwrights.

Two Forest Grove High School graduates have answered Stimson's call for help. Randy Bunker and Harley Wynne (both Class of 2007) were selected this year for the millwright apprenticeship program as the first from the high school to commit to the program.

'We're thrilled with this opportunity,' said Connie Potter, director of communications for the Forest Grove School District. 'We're always looking for ways to help students get into college and get prepared for careers. This satisfies both of those goals.'

Like others working to become millwrights, the two young men will earn an associates degrees in Industrial Maintenance Technician and become state-certified journeymen millwrights.

After they finish the program, they are committed to working for Stimson for two years at the Forest Grove, Clatskanie, St. Helens or Tillamook facilities.

The cost of this program to Stimson is $150,000 per individual, according to Tracey.

Stimson found inspiration for its apprenticeship program from the U.S. Navy. According to Tracey, CEO Andrew Miller was visiting the East Coast in 2001 and saw individuals who were good with hands-on work taking math classes at the Naval Academy. From class, they would go to work in the shipyard and apply the mathematical principles they learned by working on building ships.

This practical teaching method was the model for the classes being taught at Tillamook Bay Community College. Classes are taught by current or retired Stimson employees who have direct experience in the subject areas they are teaching.

The apprentices take classes that cover specific skills needed for a job at Stimson, including programmable control logic, pneumatics, hydraulics, motion control, mechanics and electricity.

What's driving this demand to learn new skills is new technology that has become standard in the timber industry. Stimson has become more dependent on technologically-advanced machinery to turn trees into lumber.

Instead of needing employees to work on an assembly line, the lumber company requires skilled technicians to operate the machines that are doing the physical work.

In the past, for example, chain pullers would drag the logs through the machine that cut the logs and then sort and stack the fresh lumber. Now, the lumber passes through a computerized bin sorter, which digitally scans and sorts the wood, at a rate of about 100 boards per minute.

Also, there was a worker who used to line up laser lights by hand that would tell their machine where to cut the log. Stimson has replaced this job with optimized edgers.

The machines take a three-dimensional picture of the wood, look for defaults such as large knots, and determine how to get the best value out of the piece of wood, depending on current market demands and prices.

Creating a more automated process hasn't reduced the need for employees. The new machines generated a new need for skilled technicians who maintain their computerized counterparts.

'We need people to learn how to operate these machines,' said Tracey. 'These are new skills.'

Although Stimson has taken the initiative to bolster its employment numbers, Tracey knows this doesn't guarantee that the company has conquered its struggle permanently.

'These days you can just go on the Internet and find a better-paying job instantly,' said Tracey. 'We are looking for some kind of loyalty, and hopefully this program can instill some sense of that in our employees.'