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March 17, 2014
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Sawmills hunt for workers who can make the cut

As sawmills have become more technologically driven, filling job positions has not been as easy as it was several decades ago.

More training is needed to efficiently do some jobs. In some cases, engineering backgrounds, especially in electronics, are needed. Employees must be able to program computers that in turn direct machines, saws and robots to turn logs into wood products. To help find people for these skilled positions, Roseburg Forest Products is making a recruiting video.

“The video is to show what we do here at Roseburg Forest Products,” said Jon McAmis, RFP’s director of human resources. “We want people to see that we are state-of-the-art. Our future is tied to technology. Our future is tied to having employees with the skill sets needed for technology.

“We see a lot of opportunities for employees in our lumber division, our plywood division, our engineered wood products and our composites,” McAmis said. “That skill set is very unique and as we visit colleges and universities to bring in talent, it’ll be nice to have a video to show. We want to show people there’s a future in this industry.”

RFP has 1,850 employees in Douglas County. While McAmis said that the majority are production line workers, the need for technologically savvy employees has gradually increased over the past couple of decades.

Chuck Wert, the chief operating officer for Swanson Group, a forest products company based in Glendale, agreed that more highly skilled employees are needed than was the case when the baby boomer generation was coming out of high school in the 1960s and ’70s. Swanson has 800 employees at plants in Glendale, Roseburg and Springfield.

“You can’t grow a mill unless you have technical people,” Wert said. “When those positions open, we do recruit college graduates. It’s very hard to grow if you don’t have qualified employees or a workforce that wants to work.”

McAmis and Wert admitted that despite high-tech workplaces, recruiting young, skilled people can be difficult because their mills are in rural Oregon. In many instances when visiting with prospects, they have to explain where Dillard, the home base of RFP, and Glendale are located. The mills offer wages and benefits that are “top tier” for Douglas County, but even those don’t always sway a prospect, they said.

“In recruiting, we let people know about the hunting, fishing, hiking and biking that are available here,” said McAmis, a Douglas High School graduate who went to college and returned. “We tell them there’s no better place to do those activities than here in Douglas County. We speak of the community, the pace of life, the natural beauty.”

He said, however, that the attractions of a bigger city are often tough to overcome, whether it be the prospective employee or a spouse who wants the big city lifestyle.

Wert said it’s even more difficult for Swanson Group to attract the skilled employees because Glendale is even more rural in the mountains of southern Douglas County. He said it takes at least a month if not three months to find qualified electricians and millwrights.

“We keep wages and benefits competitive, and we pay bonuses when times are good, like they have been recently,” Wert said.

Wert said the mill doesn’t have many local high school juniors and seniors identifying mill work as a career anymore. He said those young people seem to be moving out and trying other professions. Some return, realizing that the pay and benefits of mill jobs compare favorably to other jobs. He said Swanson’s recent hires are in their early 20s.

Both McAmis and Wert said they get plenty of applications for production line jobs. Swanson gets applications from a staffing service that screens applicants before passing qualified ones on to the company. McAmis and Wert agree, however, that some promising job candidates have problems.

“It’s difficult to find people who can pass the pee test and who have a driver’s license,” Wert said. “They have to show up for work every day and have a willingness to work physically all day long. We work 10-hour shifts and target 45 hours a week so our employees get overtime.

“They have to make good decisions about the wood they’re working with,” he said. “They have to use their brains as well as their backs. There’s a high level of intellectual and technical skills needed.”

At Swanson, workers who are hired through the staffing agency become full time after 90 days if they’ve shown a willingness to work and a commitment to doing their job well.

Wert added that Swanson is willing to hire entry level employees, train them and start them in an apprentice program if the person shows an aptitude for a certain type of work.

“We’re looking for people who work safely and efficiently,” McAmis said. “We’re always looking for that.”

• News-Review business reporter Craig Reed can be reached by calling 541-957-4210 or by email at creed@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Mar 17, 2014 11:06AM Published Mar 18, 2014 09:44AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.