FARMINGTON — Like his father, grandfather and uncle, 16-year-old Kyle McLean plans to get a job in the logging industry after high school.

He already has a head start as a student in Foster Career and Technical Education Center’s forestry program, where he spends most mornings harvesting trees and cutting lumber. He hopes to graduate with not only a high school degree but also as a certified logging professional.

McLean, who is from Chesterville and is a high school junior in Farmington, spoke on a recent morning in the woods next to the technical center, where he was surrounded by classmates clad in bright orange Kevlar pants and steel-toed boots.

“You’re always on your toes in the woods,” McLean said. “Your adrenaline is going. It’s fun.”

The program at the technical center, which is part of Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, is one of just four forestry programs in the state offered through career technical education, according to the Maine Department of Education. A recent rise in demand for workers in the forestry sector means that at least three school districts in Maine have recently added or are hoping to add new forestry programs.

There is no cost to enroll in the forestry program at the technical center, although enrollees must pay for their own boots, which cost $85.

“There is absolutely a demand for qualified logging operators here in the state,” said Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine in Augusta, an organization that represents independent logging contractors in the forestry industry. “It’s actually a national issue, but we have a major qualified logging operator shortage here in the state of Maine.”

State and national labor statistics indicate that the number of jobs in logging and forestry is expected to decline over the next seven years, but some in the industry say there is still a need to update the training programs available in the state and fill positions being vacated by an aging workforce.

The number of jobs available for logging workers is expected to decline by 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information projects a 5 percent decline in the number of jobs for logging equipment operators, a 43 percent drop in the number of jobs for log graders and scalers and a 16 percent drop in other logging jobs.

While there is a lot of attention to challenges facing the paper industry – the loss of jobs, decline in demand for paper, dropping tax values and requests by mills for abatements – the need for paper and wood products still exists, Doran said.

“It is a shifting industry, but it’s probably not as bad as it’s made out to be,” he said. “There are a lot of good things that are happening, and the demand for wood is not decreasing.”

‘DEMAND IS COMING BACK’

At Foster, the wood harvested by the students – mostly pine and birch – is sold for lumber and pulp wood, the kind used to make paper. The trees are cut and delimbed using chain saws, dragged out of the woods using a skidder and cables, marked and cut. Most of the harvesting is done in the winter, when the ground is frozen and the damage to the surrounding ecosystem can be minimized.

“The demand is coming back,” said Rod Spiller, a forestry and agriculture instructor at Foster. “Especially Verso has come to us and said their workers are getting older. They’re going to have a lot of people retiring and they need new blood.”

In the last 15 years, the industry has changed from what Doran called a “conventional industry,” where workers have more light-duty equipment, such as chain saws, and contractors hired more workers. Now, mechanical harvesters are becoming more common, and there are more larger pieces of computerized equipment that don’t require as many people in the woods, which explains why there are fewer jobs overall.

However, the jobs that are becoming available often require very different skills, and in-state training is not always available.

“The worker of today who operates for a logging contractor is someone who really needs to be a technician,” Doran said. “They need to be trained on general maintenance for the equipment. They need to know how to successfully operate that equipment. They need to understand forestry and best management practices. The knowledge and skill set has extraordinarily increased.”

At Linkletter & Sons Logging in Athens, owner Bob Linkletter said demand for pulp wood has remained constant over the last few years. The company harvests about 70,000 tons of pulp wood every year, including about 50,000 of which supplies Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan, he said. The Athens company employs about 45 people between logging and trucking, but it’s an aging workforce and the cost of training new employees can range from about $30,000 to $50,000.

“Currently we provide training, but that’s why we’d like to have some programs started by the state because it’s very expensive to take someone who knows nothing about operating equipment to come into the woods,” Linkletter said.

Meantime, the number of educational programs offering the needed skills are few. Aside from Farmington, there are programs in Houlton, Rumford and Mexico. The Waldo County Technical Center also has a small forestry component as part of its natural resources management program, according to the Department of Education.

A program in Lincoln closed within the last few years. In northern Maine, Eastern Maine Community College, Northern Maine Community College and Washington County Community College are working to start the state’s first mechanical forest operator training program, a 480-hour certificate program that teaches students to operate and repair equipment, as well as harvesting laws and safety.

“The options are very limited. Most of the training is done hands-on by employers,” Doran said. “We’ve gotten to the point now where too many people are either not working in the industry, or with the change in mechanization, training has not kept up with that change.”

HIGH COST OF EQUIPMENT

There are 20 students in the Farmington program, which is about 40 years old. Administrators are looking to add a pulp and paper class to the curriculum next year. The cost of running the program is one reason why there may be so few such programs around the state, according to another instructor, Chris Maxim, who graduated from the program in 1990 and worked in the logging industry for 17 years before coming back to teach.

The cost of providing equipment every year comes out to about $1,000 per student at Foster. “There’s not many young people taking our place in the industry, and without us, some of these paper mills, chip plants and pellet plants aren’t going to be able to produce anything because they won’t have anyone supplying their wood,” Maxim said.

Maxim said he feels the program is behind industry standards because of the high cost of equipment. For instance, Maxim would like to purchase a forwarder, a machine used to haul logs out of the forest, but buying a used one would cost at least $50,000.