STEVENS POINT – Working in the forestry industry is the only thing Violet Thielke ever want to do.
Growing up in Waupaca, Thielke was her dad’s “second hand” out in the woods, she said, operating and working on machines and whatever else needed to be done for their family-owned business, Thielke Forestry Products.
Now, at 23, Thielke works part-time with the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, after graduating in December from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in forest management and a minor in business administration. She also owns the family business after her dad, Michael Thielke, died last year.
Violet Thielke said she isn’t exactly sure what she plans to do next, but she knows she wants to keep working in the forestry industry every day.
“One week you’re standing in a woods that isn’t optimal or isn’t ideal,” Thielke said, “and in a couple of weeks … as soon as the harvest is done that you helped with, it’s a completely different thing. You’ve changed something … in most cases, you know that it’s for the better.”
Les Werner hopes that a new program will help more people discover the same passion that Thielke has.
This summer, the Wisconsin Forestry Center at UW-Stevens Point launched its Forest Industry Workforce Recruitment and Development Initiative, with $8 million from the state through the Workforce Innovation Grant. Over the next couple of years, K-12 students and adults will be able to participate in hands-on programs and explore careers in Wisconsin’s forestry industry, said Werner, the center’s director.
Currently, there is an “urgent need” for skilled workers in the industry, particularly in entry-level positions, according to a June news release announcing the initiative. That’s partly because a “good chunk” of the state’s forest resources are in northern Wisconsin — a rural region that has an aging workforce as younger people have moved away in search of jobs, Werner said.
At the same time, Wisconsin’s forest products industry provides more than 64,000 jobs in the state, and is the top employer in 10 counties, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
With this new program, Werner said his team wants to show younger generations that there are “good-paying career opportunities within this industry.”
People can work as a harvest operator, forwarder operator, truck driver, equipment technician, forester, hydrologist, surveyor, as well as in road building, sales and fire fighting, among other roles, according to Henry Schienebeck, executive director of Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, which is a grant partner of the initiative.
Being in the forestry industry means getting to work with “a fantastic renewable resource,” Schienebeck said. Trees provide “clean air, clean water, recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat for multiple different species,” he said. “And yet we provide products that people depend on daily for their daily life, whether that’s tissue paper, toilet paper, doors, windows, flooring.”
Immersion training programs offer hands-on skills that could increase starting wages
The Wisconsin Forestry Center is creating two post-high school immersion training programs. One is a 240-hour program at Treehaven in Tomahawk that prepares people to work in forestry operations. The other is a 200-hour program focused on sawmill technology and maintenance.
For the second program, Werner said they are building “a state-of-the-art sawmill complex and mill simulator” at Northcentral Technical College in Antigo. There, people can get hands-on training so that “when they walk in the door” at a job, “they have the skillset that gets them a higher payer scale when they’re starting out,” Werner said.
One skill students will learn is how to sharpen the bands that cut the wood, he said.
“We were talking with one of the hardwood companies here in Wisconsin,” Werner said, “and they say … the person that does the filing and sharpening of their bands … that’s a $75,000 to $80,000 a year job.”
Werner hopes that the first participants will go through these immersion programs by the fall of 2024. And, when they finish the classes, they will earn certificates and credits that can be transferred to technical schools in the area, as well as UW-Stevens Point, he said.
If someone is curious about the forestry industry, but they aren’t sure if it’s the right career field for them, these low-cost immersion programs are an easy way to try it out, Werner said. Rather than spending a lot of money on a two- or four-year-program, people can take these classes for five or six weeks and get experience that will help them get a degree or a job in the future, he said.
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Forestry programs target students in Central Wisconsin high schools
The Wisconsin Forestry Center will bring Forestry on the Road (FORward) mobile education units to classrooms and other public events for people to use. With these virtual simulators, students can try using a harvester — a machine that cuts down trees — and a forwarder, which collects the trees.
The center will also provide portable sawmills so students can see how “we take round logs and convert them into dimensional lumber,” Werner said, as well as portable kilns, to see how that wood can be used for a finished product, like furniture.
In addition to incorporating Wisconsin’s K-12 Forestry Education Program, LEAF, in more schools and grades, the center is also developing an applied curriculum to be offered at Antigo, Menominee Indian, Merrill, Rhinelander and Tomahawk high schools.
As part of this, high school students can attend a week-long skills camp at a soon-to-be-created outdoor classroom at Treehaven. There, they can see how to take apart equipment, like chainsaws, and do maintenance, Werner said.
During her spring break last year, Thielke participated in a “Science of Tree Felling” class at Treehaven, where she learned how to take down trees with a chainsaw from professionals in the industry. Getting this type of hands-on experience, and eventually getting into machines themselves that are used in forestry industry, is really key to being prepared to work in these types of jobs, she said.
Reach Becky Jacobs at [email protected] or 920-993-7117. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthyjacobs.