Graduates say logging course gives them access to financially rewarding work

By James Ronald Skains
Journal Correspondent

The first group of Timber Harvesting Equipment Operator School graduates are: Front Row, left to right, Thomas Knotts, Mitchell Phillips, and David Tolbert. Second row, left to right, Instructors Clarence Procell and Bubba Hubbard; students: Morgan Walters, Gary Legget, Robert Welch and Dewayne Creed.
During a visit to the "In-the-Woods" training section of the Timber Harvesting Equipment Operator pilot program conducted in conjunction with the Huey P. Long Campus of the Central Louisiana Technical and Community College, the Journal asked the seven students on site on for how the school has affected their lives. The consensus of opinion from all the students that were on location: "It has been a financial game changer for me."

"For the first time in my life, I've got a skill that can take me out of the minimum wage bracket and give me the opportunity to have a normal life," Robert Welch explained. "Working minimum wage type jobs means that you can't have a place of your own nor keep up a vehicle."

Most of the students graduating from Pilot Program have already obtained jobs with local loggers. Three employers sent recent entry level hires to the school.

"This Pilot Timber Harvesting Equipment Operator program, or THEO as we call it for short, is going to create 11 new jobs," Holly Morgan, one of the Coordinators of the school representing the Louisiana Society of American Foresters explained with enthusiasm. "Our goal is to conduct a another Logging School beginning the first of June next year. That will give recent high school graduates the opportunity to go right into the THEO School and in three months' time, be trained and have a good paying job. These jobs that we are creating through THEO have starting salaries of between $27,000 and $31,000. And the great thing about these jobs is the opportunity for advancement and higher pay after they receive additional on the job training. Would that not be a real success story for 18-19 year kids just coming out of high school?"

The THEO pilot program conducted at the HP Long Campus and on 6-C Property on the Olla Highway east of Winnfield was at one time only the figment of imagination of long time piney woods logger, Travis Taylor. Taylor had become concerned about the shrinking logging force with very few younger or new outside people coming into the logging industry.

"Travis has talked about the need for establishing a Logging School for the last 2-3 years," Morgan related. "He was absolutely right. The shrinking logging force is becoming a real problem in the industry. Once of the concerns for saw mills and paper mills wanting to expand long-term is whether there will be a logging force large enough to harvest the timber and get it to the mills."

"This first THEO was a cooperative endeavor between the forest industry and the Central LA Technical And Community College HP Long Campus in Winnfield," Morgan, a graduate forester herself pointed out. "We couldn't have done the school without Louisiana Caterpillar's help in providing the equipment, with 6-C Properties letting these students harvest timber on their properties, and a host of other people all working for a common goal, and that was to train students to operate timber harvesting equipment and become certified as a Master Logger."

The two in-the-woods training instructors were two long time piney woods loggers, Clarence Procell and Bubba Hubbard. Procell and Hubbard are now retired of active logging but jumped at the chance to get back into the woods teaching people the art of harvesting timber.

"I'm truly amazed at how much progress these students have made in just 8 weeks being out here operating the equipment," Procell acknowledged. "The other thing that has amazed me but pleased me is their enthusiasm for wanting to operate the equipment and work in the woods."

"I've been impressed at how well all the students have learned to operate the equipment," Hubbard added. "Some of the kids, and they are not all kids, we have one 35 year and one 50, have progressed a little faster than others, but overall, all the students have become proficient enough to work on logging jobs."

"We've stressed the importance of taking care of the equipment and also being productive in operating the equipment so the contractor can make money off your efforts," Hubbard continued. "It didn't take long for the students to decide what piece equipment they liked to operate best, but we have cross trained all the students to operate a skidder, a knuckle-boom loader with a pull through delimber and a feller-buncher. So when these guys hire out with a logging contractor, they can run any piece of equipment the logger has on his job."

"Not only have Mr. Clarence and Mr. Bubba taught us how to operate the logging equipment, but they have also told us many stories of their years working in the woods," Morgan Walters, of Oakdale explained. "Their stories have really helped us understand the logging industry and how important the people operating the equipment out in the woods are to the forest industry."

Both Walters and David Tolbert are from the area south of Alexandria. They are now employees of Perforex Company which is the logging operation of Roy O. Martin Lumber Company. Walters and Tolbert drove to Winnfield every evening for eight weeks to attend the classroom and welding class portion of THEO. Now, they are driving to the 6C property location each day for eight weeks to get the hands on training to operate the equipment. All students are receiving 272 hours of actual Equipment Operation training.

Students attended 8 weeks of classroom instruction from 5-9 PM Monday thru Thursday for a total of 128 hours. Classes consisted of CPR/First Aid, OSHA-10 hours, Field Safety, Harvesting Systems, Tree I.D., Product Specifications, Silvicultural Systems, Loss Control/Accident Prevention, Personal Finance, 32 hours of Basic Welding, Resume Preparation, and all the Master Logger courses.

These specific classes, taught mostly by volunteers from within the forest industry included: Harvest Planning, BMPs, Aesthetics, and Business Management. The classes were coordinated by the Louisiana Logging Council and the Louisiana Society of American Foresters. The 11 students scheduled for graduation on September 20th and began a career in the logging woods are: from Winnfield, James Edmonds, Thomas Knotts, Devon Talton, and Robert Welch III, and James Rudd and Dewayne Creed from nearby Dodson and Zach Womack from Sikes. Out of town students were Garry Leggett from Jonesboro, Mitchell Phillips from Provencal, Morgan Walters from Hineston and David Tolbert from Oakdale.

THEO Student Tuition Sponsors were: Lowell Hubbard Logging, JKM Logging, Double K Logging, Perforex Forest Services/Roy O. Martin, Walsh Timber Co., Louisiana Society of American Foresters, Louisiana Loggers Association, and the Louisiana Logging Council. Monetary donations for THEO were received from The Timbermen Fund, Price/Beville/Smith, McFarland Timber Co., Hunt Forest Products, Lott Oil, Southern Loggers Co-op, McCartney Oil, Weyerhaeuser, Crowell Lumber Company, Louisiana Loggers Self-Insured Fund, Despino's Tire Co, Construction Safety, Central Industrial Supply, and Kenneth Morgan Logging.

Industry volunteer instructors for THEO included: Buck Vandersteen with the LFA, Marty Toms with Weyerhaeuser, Paul Stone with Crosby Resources, and David Wascom, CPA from Natchitoches.