July 9, 2019

By Mark Elston, Plant Manager at Hampton Lumber

If you tapped ten people on the street and asked them to describe what operations look like in a lumber mill, you’d probably get ten similar answers — but wildly off-mark. Chances are, those people would describe the working conditions of lumber mills 50 years ago. As a sawmill manager for a lumber company, it can be a challenge to find people who understand modern sawmill work and have the skills needed to get the job done.

If you manage a mill or factory, you probably encounter similar challenges with public perception and workforce development. I frequently hear misconceptions about the safety and modernity of our work. The fact is, manufacturing jobs across all industries have, and will continue to, change drastically; particularly as algorithm-based logic in AI technologies become more mainstream. We’ve implemented optimized scanning systems that use computerized programmable logic control with photo-electric and laser vision, that work in unison to ensure we get the most lumber out of every log we process. We invest in similar control systems that are used to monitor and adjust boiler emissions to ensure that we comply with EPA and state environmental quality standards. Our boiler uses the bark from the logs to heat water and make steam for the drying of lumber. Systems like these are commonplace across the industry today — they help us do our jobs better, reduce safety risk at work, and help the environment we all enjoy coming home to.

While technology is becoming more advanced in sawmills, the jobs we offer are changing too. As a rural manufacturer, it can be a challenge to find skilled workers. Like many other industries, we are dealing with natural attrition. I’ve found success in growing talent within our company and the local community through investing in our employees and “growing our own” through in-house apprenticeship programs for electricians, millwrights, and saw filers, to name a few. This requires that we regularly evaluate our current workforce and develop a training plan to fill vacancies or new positions years in advance. We also cultivate career pathways for local youth by working to enhance CTE programs in local schools and community groups. It’s critical that manufacturing sectors like ours participate in and support local schools to ensure that education and training is up-to-date and in line with changing industrial needs and standards. This is particularly important for rural areas, as it can be difficult to attract and retain employees from outside the community. In my experience, by helping to build a skilled workforce locally, we have better success in helping people see a career pathway, while simultaneously improving employee retention and overall job satisfaction.

Sawmill work has changed a lot over the past 50 years and in order to continue to adapt and thrive, we need to make sure we integrate the best available technology and ensure our most valuable resource — our workforce — is up to the task.

Mark Elston Headshot, Industry TodayMark Elston is Plant Manager at Hampton Lumber’s Tillamook Lumber Division. With more than 30 years of experience in the lumber industry, Mark brings a keen eye to production management, lumber technology trends, and workplace leadership. Mark received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from Oregon State University.

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