Timber Talent: Exploring the Decline of Youth Interest in the Hardwood Industry

April 12, 2024
Career DevelopmentDiversity and InclusionForestry CareersIndustry InsightsWood ProductsWorking ForestYoung Professionals

Current management in the hardwood industry reports strains to attract young talent into their sector.

In an era marked by technological innovation and environmental consciousness, the allure of hardwood forestry appears to be fading among young individuals poised on the brink of their careers. This decline presents a critical challenge, demanding exploration, under-standing, and initiative-taking solutions.

I met NHLA at the Forest Products Career Showcase held at Mississippi State, it was the second event where I encountered discussions about the need for more interest among younger generations in pursuing careers in forestry and forest product manufacturing. Faced with this question, I found myself straddling two worlds. While I did not fit the description of “younger” compared to the undergraduate students I was accompanying, I also did not quite align with the older demographic. This moment of disconnect prompted me to consider the undergraduates’ perspectives and feelings on the matter.

To delve into this complex phenomenon, I embarked on a journey to glean insights from the very individuals poised to inherit the mantle of the forestry industry—students nearing graduation, the future custodians of our forests. Through a series of interviews, I sought to uncover their sentiments and the underlying factors contributing to the diminishing appeal of careers in forestry among the youth. What emerged from these conversations was a nuanced tapestry of perspectives, shedding light on the multifaceted dynamics at play.

From discussions on sustainability and diversity to reflections on industry engagement and career aspirations, the voices of these young professionals-in-training offer invaluable insights into the challenges and opportunities facing the hardwood sector. Their narratives illuminate the current situation and provide a compass for charting a more vibrant and inclusive future for hardwood forestry.
It is worth noting that I transitioned into forestry after working as a land surveyor in the mining industry for several years post-graduation. While I enjoyed the work, the remoteness from urban centers and family and my growing environmental consciousness propelled me toward seeking higher education in a more sustainable field. This career shift led me down the path of biomass utilization and forestry.
Without further delay, I will introduce you to Ben, an undergraduate student finishing his program this May.

Interviewer: So, Ben, let us start at the beginning. What led you to choose the College of Forestry?

Ben: Well, it was a mix of things. Earlier, I thought I would follow my father’s career path as a civil engineer. But I have always been drawn to the outdoors, so that was a big part of it. I also wanted to understand how businesses interact with nature and where all our products come from. Forestry seemed like the perfect blend of those interests. The tipping point was hearing a presentation by a professor who works with sustainable biobased materials out of wood. Plus, something is appealing about having multiple avenues on my resume.

I: Can you tell me about any experiences during your studies or internships in forestry and how they’ve influenced your career goals?

Ben: Sure thing. I have had some cool opportunities, like interning at Mississippi State University’s wood identification lab, where we tackled illegal logging issues. Then, I went to Oregon State University, where I worked on optimizing timber supply chains for housing projects. These experiences opened my eyes to the industry’s complexities and got me thinking about balancing sustainability with economic growth.

I: Regarding sustainability, what are your thoughts on conservation efforts within forestry practices?

Ben: We are making progress, but there’s still work to be done. We are following codes and taking care of commercially logged lands, which is great. But there’s room for improvement in optimizing supply chains and embracing things like carbon credits. There is a disconnect between generations; younger generations want change, but it costs a lot of money. I find my path trying to be an advocate of both sides and how to develop both sustainability and economics. We need to find ways to make sustainability profitable so that everyone wins. 

I: It’s definitely a challenge worth tackling. And what about your plans for professional development now that you are so close to graduation?

Ben: Well, I am headed to start an MBA, focusing on management or supply chain management. I want to learn how to collaborate with people and run a company, ideally in the forest sector. I am all about green-minded efforts and want to bring that perspective to whatever I do. 

I: Sounds like a solid plan. Let us switch gears a bit. How have you connected with the industry during your college years?

Ben: I have attended my fair share of wood conferences and career fairs. It has been eye-opening to see how companies are approaching sustainability and innovation. And thanks to platforms like LinkedIn, I have kept those connections alive beyond the events. Apart from the College of Forestry career fair, I also attended the business school career fairs. Additionally, in some courses, we have invited talks from industry leaders. 

I: Do you plan to stay updated on the trends in the forestry industry?

Ben: Staying connected with industry folks is my primary strategy. But there’s room for improvement in how the industry markets itself, especially for younger generations. I think younger generations will not usually read a magazine. The forestry and the hardwood sector need to be more visible and appealing for them. 

I: Agree. What do you see as the biggest challenges the hardwood industry is facing right now?

Ben: Well, there is the aging workforce issue, for one. There is this perception that smaller companies find hiring and retaining younger people harder. There is a demographic shift for sure, and my generation has changed how we interact with each other, how we network, and where we desire to work. My peers are afraid of doing the same job for 20 years, waiting for a generational shift for a big opportunity. They want a fulfilling career to be able to diversify their time. Additionally, they want time for travel or opportunities for relocation. In summary, most are looking for more comfortable jobs, which naturally drives them away from manufacturing positions.

There also needs to be more clarification about what it means to work in forestry. We need to do a better job of highlighting the diverse career opportunities available and dispelling those myths. Oh, and we need to ensure younger folks feel valued and supported in the industry.

I also feel, for example, that the hardwood industry’s visibility is low. When you asked me about NHLA, I was not aware of them. When I think about the forestry sector, I think about softwood logs and construction materials. 

I: Do you think that is influenced by social media?

Ben: Yes, social media attracts younger people to bigger cities and lifestyles. I would be more interested in a sales position in a medium or big city than manufacturing or logging in a small town. The availability of being constantly stimulated and having something to do and somewhere to go attracts the younger generation.

But also, I think growing up seeing our parents at the other side of their careers, there is maybe a disconnect to the 20-30 years that took to get there, grinding at the beginning of the careers. 

I: What factors contribute to the difficulty of attracting and retaining young workers in the hardwood industry?

Ben: For most young people, the forest industry tends not to be visible enough. So, that disengages me, and misconceptions start to form in my mind. For example, if I worked there and the age difference with most of the people was 10-20 years, I would be overwhelmed. Social connections to people my age are particularly important for me. More about that, the invisibility of younger career paths within the industry plays against my thinking about my future in the same place.

I: We have been talking a lot about the older and younger generation in the sector. Do you feel there is a generation in the middle?

Ben: Yes, there is. But now that I think about it, they are also invisible most of the time. That is why many younger people are not capable of clearly seeing the career paths available to them. 

I: In your opinion, what would attract younger talent into the forestry sector?

Ben: The usual approach is offering value in the transition from college into industry. In my experience, during career fairs, I have felt more attracted to companies that showed career development plans for their new hires. Others offered rotational and training programs in which they plan for you to get familiar with the distinct roles within the organization. 

I: What about diversity in the forestry sector?

Ben: It is something we need more of. The industry has been a bit of a boys’ club for too long. We need to break down those barriers and make space for everyone. It is not just about fairness but about bringing fresh perspectives and ideas.

I: Absolutely, Ben. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with me today.

Ben: Anytime. Thanks for having me.

Now for the second interview. This time I contacted a master student named Michelle. She is an international student in her 3rd semester.

I: Michelle, let’s start by discussing what sparked your interest in pursuing a graduate degree in forestry. Can you share your journey with us?

Michelle: Sure, it’s been an exciting ride. What initially drew me in was the opportunity to pursue advanced education in finding sustainable biomaterials, which was a big deal for me. But honestly, when I first thought of forestry, I pictured myself out in the woods, handling chainsaws and all that. It seemed pretty daunting, to be honest. 

I: How did that make you feel?

Michelle: It made me a bit apprehensive. I’m not the most physically inclined person, and the thought of all that physical strain was intimidating. Plus, I had a previous internship where I witnessed an accident with heavy machinery, which made me even warier about the safety practices in manufacturing or industrial settings. 

I: That’s understandable. Have you had any experiences or internships related to forestry work that have influenced your career goals? 

Michelle: Actually, no, I haven’t. My background is more in Agri-industry, and most of my experience in forestry has been in the lab. The closest I’ve come to fieldwork was when someone else cut a tree for me to use in my research.

I: Let’s talk about sustainability and conservation efforts in forestry. What are your thoughts on that?

Michelle: Well, it’s a mixed bag for me. On one hand, my career back home focused on replacing conventional methods with more sustainable practices. Sometimes, I’m confused by some of the practices in the forestry industry. And that might be because of a lack of understanding of forestry practices. Clearcutting and fire prescriptions don’t always seem very sustainable to me, you know? 

I have been a master’s student here for three semesters. Most of my classes have been focused on biomass processing technology and pathology (fungi that affect forests). I may not be seeing the whole picture.

I: Do you see yourself pursuing a career in the forestry sector?

Michelle: I don’t see myself pursuing a career in forestry. I feel like my skills are better suited to laboratory work, research, and teaching—something more of an “office job” than a “blue-collar job,” if you know what I mean. 

I: Got it. Have you had any connections with the industry during your time at the College of Forestry?

Michelle: Not really, at least not back home. I’ve been to some career fairs and conferences here, but I often find myself disappointed.

Most of what I see is fieldwork-related and doesn’t align with my skills or interests. I wish there were more emphasis on innovation and research. 

I: That makes sense. Let’s talk about diversity and inclusion in the forestry sector. What are your thoughts on that?

Michelle: Honestly, I see little diversity or inclusion in the industry. It feels very male-focused and conservative, which is a bit off-putting. Attracting young people, especially women, to this field will be a considerable challenge. Additionally, as an international student, I have faced challenges connecting with the businesses at the career fairs; they don’t seem interested in us. Graduate students can rarely participate in internships while being students, which can backfire on us after we graduate for job interviews. I see a lot of graduate students struggling to get into industry positions. 

I: In your opinion, what factors contribute to the difficulty of attracting and retaining young workers in the hardwood industry?

Michelle: I feel that I have been more informed about the softwood industry. I took a forest health class, which mainly focused on softwood diseases. That made me think that the forestry industry focuses mainly on softwood. So, I feel that hardwood might be a smaller or specialized sector.

Also, there is a lack of knowledge about salary and compensation. Young people are finding more options for working in other manufacturing or management sectors. Maybe the visibility of lifestyles or benefits from the forestry industry is not reaching the younger generation. Another thing is that if you are really considering joining a manufacturing job, the question arises if the salary ranges are in line with the effort/risk.

I: How could the industry better appeal to younger generations and encourage them to pursue careers in hardwood forestry?

Michelle: For me, economic compensation needs to be proportionate to the risk that young people are taking. Industries could also invest more in innovation and sustainability efforts, developing more friendly environments for young people and women and more diversity and inclusion. Finally, they could offer a clearer way to develop career-growing opportunities and career development.

I would love to see some industry talks in my courses at the college level. That will expose younger people to the industry roles available. Sometimes, smaller companies don’t share information in the same channels that younger people use to communicate. 

I: Have you encountered any barriers or obstacles in your pursuit of opportunities within the hardwood industry, and if so, how have you navigated them?

Michelle: I am an international student, so that is the first barrier I face. Companies in the forestry industry and other industries face hardships in offering jobs to students who might be willing to fill the gaps in the labor force, especially when the program is recognized as STEM now, and we can extend the optional training after we graduate.

Companies in the forestry industry, along with other sectors, may encounter difficulties in hiring international students due to visa restrictions. However, there are certain provisions such as Optional Practical Training (OPT) available to international students after graduation. OPT allows international students to work in their field of study for one year after completing their degree.

Moreover, certain STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degree programs qualify for an additional extension of OPT, known as the STEM OPT extension. This extension allows eligible students to extend their OPT period for an additional 24 months, providing them with more time to gain practical work experience in their field. So, despite the initial challenges, these OPT and STEM OPT extensions offer opportunities for international students like myself to navigate and potentially overcome some of the barriers in pursuing opportunities within the forestry industry. We are fortunate that our program was recognized as STEM last year.

I: Understood. Lastly, what misconceptions might younger individuals have about working in the hardwood industry?

Michelle: I think many young people are drawn to big cities and might not see the appeal of working in a smaller town. Plus, there’s this perception that forestry jobs are all about physical labor and prone to accidents, which isn’t always the case. 

I: Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your perspective with us. 

Michelle: Of course, I’m happy to help.

By Javier A. Hernandez-Diaz
Javier A. Hernandez-Diaz is a PhD Candidate in Forestry at Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife, and Environment. With a profound academic background, Javier has earned two graduate certificates in Supply Chain Management and Innovation, as well as Pulp and Paper Engineering, showcasing a diverse skill set and interdisciplinary approach to research.
Prior to pursuing doctoral studies, Javier completed a Master of Science degree in Water and Energy Engineering at Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico. His academic journey began with a Bachelor of Science in Land Surveying Engineering from the same institution.
Fueled by a passion for sustainable practices and innovation, Javier’s research is centered on forest products development and the exploration of sustainable biomaterials. The valorization of biomass, particularly downed timber as a result of catastrophic events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes.



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