Before he endeavored to start a new career, Wesley Jackson worked as a contractor installing satellite dishes. Working independently, it was up to Jackson to pay for all the supplies he needed to complete the installations, including the gasoline he put in his truck.
"I owed more money than I was making," said Jackson, who is 49. "At my age I'm looking for security and better benefits."
So Jackson signed up to learn the logging trade, enrolling in a 16-week class developed through a collaboration of the N.C. Association of Professional Loggers, Pitt Community College and the N.C. Agromedicine Institute. The Rural Center awarded the program $50,000 from the Rural Community Mobilization program, which assists community organizations connecting job-seekers with jobs – and sometimes with new career paths.
The Rural Center grant was combined with awards from the Golden LEAF Foundation and the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. Caterpillar Forest Products donated the use of heavy equipment. The grants enable students to enroll in the course tuition-free.
Each of the 14 students was unemployed when it began. The logging class consists of eight weeks of classroom sessions, which includes an emphasis onimproving students' money-management and job interview skills, followed by eight weeks in the forest. When they complete the course, students will be qualified for entry-level work as forest equipment operators.
The students expressed optimism about the future of the logging industry and their places in it.
"I like being outside. I like big trucks, to tell you the truth," said Donna Chaffee, who is 47 and the only woman in the class. "Logging has consumed me."
In late June the novice loggers shipped their first batch of pulpwood, sending out a load weighing 25.7 tons.
Loggers traditionally have trained on the job, said Doug Duncan, executive director of the N.C. Association of Professional Loggers. But that is an expense for logging companies and a danger for new workers.
According to Forestry Mutual Insurance Co., 40 percent of logging injuries and fatalities occur within a worker's first 90 days on the job.
By offering a structured classroom and field environment, this course allows students to learn much more safely, Duncan said. And logging companies are unshackled from the time and expense of training a completely green recruit.
After finishing the course, the students "may not be polished gems, but we'll have knocked off the rough edges," Duncan said.
The economic downtown has hurt the logging industry, with North Carolina losing approximately 30 percent of its logging workforce over the last five years. The decrease in demand from the housing and furniture markets have been two of the biggest factors in the decline.
When there's no work, loggers find jobs in other fields. But bright spots in the timber market have recently materialized, producing the need for additional skilled workers.
Nontraditional markets, including those that export wood chips to make fiberboard, produce pine fluff for use in diapers and manufacture wood pellets to burn for electricity, are all on an upswing, Duncan said.
These newer markets, along with the expected return of the more traditional ones, mean that prepping workers now will mean dividends for years to come, for both logging companies and the workers.
"We need them right now," said Bryan Wagner of Forestry Mutual, who helps guide the class. "When the industry turns hot again, these guys will be ready to run with it."
Wagner recently led the class through a day of chainsaw basics on a timber tract in Bertie County. He explained the mechanics of the saw and how to use it to make a tree fall where you want it to. He impressed students by placing a short stick on the ground 30 feet from the trunk of a pine tree, then felling it directly on top of his tiny target.
Wagner explained how field crews operate, with truck and crane operators working alongside those with the chainsaws.
"It's invaluable to know how a crew works," Duncan said. "It's all integrated, like a ballet."
Matthew Harrell can't wait to get started on his new career. After serving in the military, working on farms and driving a truck, he's ready for a job that allows him to be home at night. As a truck driver, he often missed his wife.
"In a year's time, I saw her three or four weeks all together," said Harrell, 27.
Like many in the class, Harrell doesn't have a specific logging job in mind for when he graduates. Because the class will teach something about each part of working on a crew, he can make that decision when he completes the course.
"I'm up for anything that comes my way," Harrell said.