The important thing in this Oregonian article is what’s left unsaid.

So here’s what is said:   lumber production in Oregon last year surged to a 14-year high, fueled by the US homebuilding boom.  For timber workers, that meant a little bit of good news:  "The industry produced a rare, if tiny, employment gain statewide."  Likewise, the previously torrid pace of mill closures slowed. But despite the high volumes of timber being harvested, there are still 20,000 fewer timber industry jobs today than there were in 1990.  And even in last year’s boom, the industry used new technology, moreso than new employees, to meet demand for more two-by-fours.  Worse, Oregon’s timber industry faces global competition from hundreds of timber companies in dozens of nations, and global price competition will continue to put the squeeze on Oregon’s timber producers.

So what’s left unsaid?  Just this: the importance of the timber industry to the state’s employment picture has been steadily waning.  And given current trends, that fact is not likely to change anytime soon.

  • The case of Hampton Affiliates, mentioned in the article, is Exhibit A. The company is one of Oregon’s top producers, and during last year’s boom it increased its production by 10 percent over the previous year.  But it did so with about the same number of employees as it had a year ago.  The trick:  it has invested in machinery that forestalls the need to hire people."That’s the unfortunate part of being more efficient," says Hampton Affiliates’ CEO. "Some of the efficiency makes the mills run better, but some of it eliminates jobs."

    This is the long-term trend for just about every resource-extracting industry in the developed world:  productivity in mining, timber, and agriculture is on the rise, so even as production increases, employment is stable or declining.  And with global competition holding down prices, commodity producers are constantly looking for ways to squeeze costs so they can stay competitive—and squeezing costs often means squeezing out employees.

    The lesson: over the long term, betting too much of the state’s fortunes on producing low-value commodities in a global marketplace is a bad gamble.  Timber is no exception. So that puts a premium on looking for ways to diversify out of the cheap commodity markets and into high-value specialty markets.  And it also suggests that, over time, the state’s forests may be much more valuable kept in place than they are turned into plywood. (See much more on this topic in our book, Green Collar Jobs.)