• Brady Hummel

Filling the Gap: Technical College Programs Training Forestry's Future

[This story was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Georgia Forestry Magazine.]


The 21st-century workplace is innovating quickly and continuously, demanding employers and employees be prepared for a future that we cannot yet predict. Two things will always hold true, regardless of how that future unfolds: we will continue to need a diverse workforce, and we will continue to need to train that workforce to fill the demand for labor. ​ Since the G.I. Bill was passed in 1944, providing returning World War II veterans, among other things, tuition support to help them secure higher education, getting a bachelor’s degree has been lauded as a stepping stone on the path to the American Dream and its promise of prosperity. “As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education,” wrote Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, in an article for The Atlantic. That college-for-all philosophy, though, has shown cracks in recent years. As the cost of a four year degree continues to increase, the potential return on that investment is becoming more difficult for many to justify. According to the Federal Reserve’s most recent available data from 2019, U.S. consumers owe a collective $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt. And an estimated 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed, working in jobs that are misaligned to their skillset. Yet, the majority of jobs in many industries — including forestry — do not require a bachelor’s degree. A joint report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute states that “while the job gains are positive indications that industry continues to recover from the Great Recession and reflect strong production levels, it also means that finding talent with the right skills to fill the open 40% of recent college graduates are underemployed. Between 2018 and 2028, this skills gap may leave unfilled an estimated 2.4 million jobs, and, if it continues to persist, it could risk $2.5 trillion in economic output over the next decade. For many looking to begin a career in forestry, a four-year degree doesn’t point them towards their career aspirations and isn’t worth the burdensome student-loan debt it requires. “For the right candidate,” argues Dave Tomar, chief editor at The Quad, an online magazine geared toward high school and college students, “trade school is more affordable and more efficient than college, but perhaps more importantly, trade schools point more directly toward growing job markets…[And] our rising dependence on technology continues to create excellent career opportunities and earning potential for professionals with trade school backgrounds.” Trade schools, vocational schools and career and technical education (CTE) all describe “cutting-edge, rigorous and relevant education programs [that prepare] youth and adults for high-wage, high-skill, high-demand careers in established and emerging industries.” In most cases, these programs provide students with an associate degree, diploma or technical certificate. In Georgia last year, more than 37,000 students graduated from the 22 colleges and 99 percent of them are either gainfully employed in their field or continuing their education.The mission of the TCSG is to “[build] a well educated, globally competitive workforce for Georgia.” The National Skills Coalition describes the careers these CTE programs prepare students for as “middle-skill jobs, which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree.”10 Demand for middle-skill jobs is strong in Georgia, as 55 percent of all jobs in 2015 were middle-skill, and demand for these jobs will remain strong in the coming years. The future of Georgia’s forestry industry lies in these middle-skill jobs — operating timber harvesting equipment, driving log trucks, working in pulp and paper or sawmills, and many others throughout the supply chain. Across our state, there are high-quality technical college programs that are filling the gap for trained employees and operators throughout the forestry industry.

Equipment operators trained in technical schools are critical for developing a future workforce for the logging sector.


Coastal Pines Technical College

With locations stretching across 13 counties from Waycross to Brunswick, Coastal Pines Technical College (CPTC) is right in the heart of Georgia’s wood basket.

Students from Coastal Pines Technical College’s Timber Harvesting program get on-the-job training for a career in forestry. Courtesy of Lauralee Tison/Coastal Pines Technical College


Many forestry companies are within driving distance from at least one of CPTC’s seven satellite campuses, and almost all of those companies are always look ing for skilled employees. When talking with these forestry companies, CPTC staff kept hearing about the difficulty finding qualified people to fill job openings, especially for logging crews. “There are high school students in the area who are capable to do that kind of work, but they don’t have the training and knowledge to meet the companies’ standards,” said Tommy Peagler, Forestry/Timber Harvesting Instructor at CPTC. “We just need to train them.” In 2016, Peagler and others launched CPTC’s two Timber Harvesting certificate programs. Both let area high school students dual enroll during their senior year, allowing them to graduate with both their high school diploma and Master Timber Harvester Certification. The program started at Pierce County High School in Blackshear and has since expanded to Charlton County High School in Folkston, Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst and Appling County High School in Baxley. The 12 credit hours required for the Basic Timber Harvesting prog ra m cover Introduction to Timber Harvesting Safety, Forest Products Marketing, Woodland Skills and Timber Industry Standards. The Timber Harvesting Operations program requires an additional six credit hours in Timber Harvest Equipment Operations. The year-long program costs between $1,500 and $2,000 for in-state students — a fifth of the average annual in-state college tuition in Georgia. Students split their time in both programs between in-class instruction and job shadowing and demonstrations in the field. “We’re taking the students to logging crews or mills every Tuesday and Thursday during classes,” Peagler said. By the time the students graduate at the end of the program in May, they have a good idea of what they want to do, Peagler said. “We get students who want to get on equipment, or want to be foresters, or want to weld, and that’s okay,” he continued. “We want to expose them to new experiences to help them decide on that next step, whether in forestry or not.” Of the 45 students currently enrolled in the Timber Harvesting programs, Peagler expects about 15 will want to get on harvesting equipment and five of those will be “woods-ready” and placed with local timber companies. He said that their industry partners think that’s right on to meet their demand. For three weeks in June, after the students graduate, those 15 students get on-the-job training with equipment on loan from Caterpillar, CAT, Yancey Bros, Tigercat Tidewater and Flint Equipment Company. The Georgia Forestry Commission allows them to use state lands in the Dixon Memorial State Forest to learn how to operate the equipment. The timber they har vest during those three weeks is delivered to partner mills in Brunswick, Waycross and Blackshear. The CPTC programs are serving as a model for other technical colleges to also begin training timber harvesters and forestry professionals. Peagler reported that he gets calls from all over Georgia and Florida from people who are interested in adapting them for their own schools. “We can supply the workers that are needed for our industry, particularly in our rural areas, through these tech programs,” Peagler said. “We’re glad others are looking to replicate what we’re doing here at Coastal Pines.” To learn more about Coastal Pines Technical College’s Timber Harvesting certification programs, visit www.coastalpines.edu/programs/ forestry-technology.


Ogeechee Technical College

Wildlife population management is of critical importance for Georgia’s forestry industry. Many of the more than 90 species of mammals and 350 species of birds in Georgia rely on healthy forest ecosystems for their habitat and survival.

Students at Ogeechee Technical College learn about aquatic habitats, a critical skill for becoming a game warden. Courtesy of Ogeechee Technical College

Call them Conservation Law Enforcement Officers or Game Wardens, there are dedicated people in all of Georgia’s 159 counties who ensure the rules and regulations in place to protect those wildlife populations are enforced. These certified state police officers also protect endangered and exotic plants and animals, control waste and litter in our state forests and ensure that recreation activities in nature are done safely. Even though these Game Wardens play an important role in protecting Georgia’s forests and natural resources, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Law Enforcement division is always look ing for applicants who have an associate degree and are trained in wildlife management. Students at Ogeechee Technical College learn about aquatic habitats, a critical skill for becoming a game warden. Ogeechee Technical College, located in Statesboro and serving Bulloch, Evans and Screven counties, started in the Fall 2019 semester to offer a two-year Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree program in Conservation Law Enforcement to help fill that consistent demand. “The program combines Criminal Justice courses and Fish and Wildlife courses to provide the students with an overview of the criminal justice system and arm them with the knowledge and skills needed to be a Conservation Law Enforcement Officer,” said Fish and Wildlife Management Instructor Casey Corbett. Game Warden is a multi-faceted job that requires protecting both Georgia’s natural resources and its population. Accordingly, students in the A.A.S. in Conservation L aw Enforcement program learn about the principles of law enforcement, wildlife policy and law, constitutional law, habitat manipulation and criminal procedure, on top of general education courses. They are also required to participate in an internship during the two-year program, which provides them with invaluable on-the-job experience to help springboard their career after graduating. While not even a year old yet, the A.A.S. in Conservation Law Enforcement program has seen some interest. There are currently 11 students enrolled in the program, and Corbett expects that to grow in the future. Students don’t need to come right out of high school, though. Anyone can apply for the program “as long as they’re interested in a career associated with natural resources,” Corbett said. ​Corbett believes that programs like this one at other technical colleges in Georgia prepare students for successful careers in natural resource management and lead to high job placement after graduation. “Regardless of the level of experience a student has coming into school, we prepare them to be ready for the workforce the day they finish their program.” To learn more about Ogeechee Technical College’s Conservation Law Enforcement program, visitwww.ogeecheetech.edu/531.


South Georgia Technical College

What good are the nearly 45 million tons of timber harvested every year in Georgia if they can’t be delivered to the mills? ​

Yet a concern consistently and universally aired by many in our industry is the shortage of qualified log truck drivers. Many of those qualifications are determined by insurance companies, which normally require a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and a specific amount of hands-on experience driving a log truck. The South Georgia Technical College’s TEAM Safe Trucking, a volunteer alliance committed to elevating the safety, performance, and professional level of the forest industry’s transportation sector (www.teamsafetrucking.com). A critical and unique component of SGTC’s program is that it is endorsed by insurance companies who specialize in serving the forest sector. “This program is specifically designed to address t he loom ing shortage of qualified log truck drivers in Georgia,” said Wally Summers, SGTC’s vice president for economic development. “We are focused on training drivers who understand speed and space management, rural driving and hazards associated with delivering raw material from the woods to the mill.” (SGTC) Log Truck Driver Safety Training program is designed to reduce accidents through enhanced driver training and to recruit new, safety-focused drivers to deliver timber into Georgia’s forest product mills. To teach drivers about the specifics of safely operating log trucks, the program uses education modules from TEAM Safe Trucking, a volunteer alliance committed to elevating the safety, performance, and professional level of the forest industry’s transportation sector (www.teamsafetrucking.com). A critical and unique component of SGTC’s program is that it is endorsed by insurance companies who specialize in serving the forest sector. “This program is specifically designed to address t he loom ing shortage of qualified log truck drivers in Georgia,” said Wally Summers, SGTC’s vice president for economic development. “We are focused on training drivers who understand speed and space management, rural driving and hazards associated with delivering raw material from the woods to the mill.” To learn more about South Georgia Technical College’s Log Truck Driver Safety Training program, visit www.southgatech.edu.


Southeastern Technical College

There is an even greater demand for trained truck drivers in general. The American Truck Associations estimate that 160,000 driver positions will go unfilled between now and 2029.

Courtesy of Southeastern Technical College


In order to fill the demand for log truck drivers in Georgia who meet the insurance companies’ requirements, more young people need to be trained on how to safely drive a truck and receive their CDL. “If there weren’t any truck drivers, you wouldn’t have things you need on an everyday basis, like gas for your car, groceries or clothes,” said Ricky Strange, Commercial Truck Driving Instructor at Southeastern Technical College (STC). “Getting logs from the forest to the mills is another critical piece we rely on truck drivers for.” Strange has been at STC since 2000, one year after the Commercial Truck Driving certificate program star ted. Since then, the program has graduated approximately 2,600 truck drivers — five cohorts of 25 students, on average, every year. Students of all ages go through the program, as young as 18 and as old as 76, and from a diverse array of backgrounds. Students start the 7 ½ week program in t he classroom — through day or night classes at either the Vidalia or Swainsboro campuses — to get their learner’s permit and pass their pre-trip inspection. Next, they learn six backing maneuvers and have to show that they can do them before moving on to the third part of the program: road driving. Driving an 18-wheel tractor trailer is very different from driving a regular car or truck, so students practice merging onto and off of the Interstate for a week. Next, they practice on secondary roads and in city traffic — all skills they’ll need to pass the CDL road test. “We’re very proud that we’re currently at a 100-percent pass rate when our graduates take the CDL certification test,” Strange said. And hopefully starting with the Summer 2020 cohort, STC will build on that long track record of success and begin offering a training program specific to log truck drivers. Targeting those who already have their CDL but are interested in becoming log truck drivers, the 80-hour program will train students on the unique skills and challenges involved in driving a log truck. The program will also give companies that hire graduates an insurance break if their insurance providers recognize the program — and most of the local providers have already promised to do so. “All of us here at Southeastern Tech are excited about this new program and helping to fill the demand for qualified log truck drivers in our state,” Strange said. To learn more about Southeastern Technical College’s Commercial Truck Driving program, visit www.southeasterntech.edu/ academics/program.php?id=995.

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