The timber industry has long been an economic engine for Montana, providing well-paying jobs to workers and generating upwards of $550 million per year in sales. However, there are limited resources in the Flathead Valley for people to learn about and train to enter the field. Those who operate logging machinery often develop most of their skills on the job, where the stakes of potential accidents are high.
“When people think of heavy equipment operation, they often think that it’s just for transportation or clearing,” said Lisa Blank, executive director of workforce development for Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC). “They don’t see skidders and all of the other pieces, because those are in the backwoods out of the public eye.”
FVCC’s Heavy Equipment Operator Program received funding to help bridge that gap. The department is pooling money from several grants to purchase a brand-new training tool – the $100,000 Vortex Edge Plus. This portable machine simulates logging scenarios to teach students how to operate logging equipment without risking bodily harm or damaging actual structures. The technology also quickly assesses the skill level of its operators, a critical tool when instructing beginners.
Blank said that the machine will help students build breadth and depth of knowledge in a low-pressure and low-cost environment. The department believes that giving students the opportunity to make mistakes on the logging simulator will ultimately make them better employees in the field.
“We want students to take risks, and really be bold with learning,” Blank said. “If it’s going to cost several thousand dollars to repair a piece of equipment, students are going to be less willing to try new things. So, this simulator gives students that extra confidence to go ahead and give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen? If you crash the simulator, we’ll just turn it back on.”
While Montana’s forestry industry is lucrative, the other side of this coin is what Montana Business Quarterly characterizes as “labor woes.” After several years of record-high home construction, logging employers are struggling to hire new workers.
A large driver of this gap in the Flathead Valley is a crisis of skill – Blake said that many local businesses report struggling to find qualified employees. She hopes that the new simulator will allow FVCC to graduate these much-needed skilled workers.
“Our program has been successful in preparing students, but not in the quantity that the logging industry needs,” Blank said. “Part of my role is to try to bring together partners to have greater conversations about the industry’s needs, the barriers, and how we can all come to the table. We’re really excited to be seeing that come to fruition.”
Blank said that the FVCC Heavy Equipment Operator Program has a close relationship with the Montana Logging Association and the decision to purchase this specific simulator was a collaborative effort to address the industry’s most pressing needs. The college was awarded two grants – $50,000 from the U.S. Forest Service and another $50,000 from Green Diamond’s 2023 Impact Fund Gift.
Green Diamond is one of the five largest timberland owner-operators in the U.S., responsible for managing 2.2 million acres. John Davis, Green Diamond’s vice president and general manager of Mountain West Timberlands, said one of the company’s key tenets is sustainable forest management. To that end, supporting FVCC’s education efforts as part of the timber company’s annual charitable giving aligns with its mission.
“Consistent with our core values of safety, integrity, stewardship, community and profitability, our company is dedicated to supporting organizations like the Flathead Valley Community College that help to ensure a prosperous future for our natural resources,” Davis said in a press release on Oct. 4. “We admire the great work FVCC has done and hope our donation will help attain further success.”
Blake Thompson, FVCC director of trades and industrial arts, said that in addition to advancing the Heavy Equipment Operator program, the new equipment also feeds into the college’s larger purpose.
“It falls on us to come up with different solutions to try and help students bridge the gap once they leave the doors of this college campus,” Thompson said. “The hope is that not only are they prepared with the skills that they learn here, but also they have something to start with, so that we can help them go from school to a paycheck.”
Once the equipment is set up, FVCC will take the simulator on the road to attract new students and host a community night to educate the public about the new tool for career training.
“We can’t thank the Montana Logging Association, Green Diamond, as well as the Forest Service enough because everyone really came together and it’s exciting to have so many partners,” Blank said. “We’re in the first steps of this, but we’d like to be a regional hub for people to come to the valley and do training within the forest products industry. We’re hoping to build this out.”
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