Despite pressures of globalization and an aging workforce, the University of Wisconsin Forestry Department has no plans to change.
With the largest number of forestry jobs in the nation, Wisconsin feels the shift in demand for wood products overseas acutely, according to DNR analysts.
Demand for Wisconsin wood products has shrunk as digital media has increasingly diminished paper demand, but the shift from local to global markets has had an even greater effect, DNR analyst Andy Stoltman said. Wisconsin must now look to markets in India and Asian nations where it once relied on strong local demand, he said.
Countries with more moderate climates have an advantage over Wisconsin lumber because tree growth is not interrupted by harsh winters, Stoltman said.
“In the southern part of the U.S. there’s more wood volume put on each tree every year since they have a longer time to photosynthesize,” he said.
Another issue looming over the forestry industry is the lack of replacements for a workforce whose average age has been steadily increasing. He said younger foresters are not replenishing the labor force for reasons such as high insurance cost.
UW Forest and Wildlife Ecology chair Mark Rickenbach said the forestry major has actually seen an uptick in enrollment over the past five years, though he acknowledged it was largely due to outreach efforts. With a current class size of around 45 students, Rickenbach said in the more distant past, the class size was larger.
The major focuses on teaching students how to competently perform necessary field work which can lead to three different employment tracks. Graduates may work for public land agencies such as Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, land management companies or consultants.
The school is aware of the competition Wisconsin lumber faces, and Rickenbach said some students go on to work as foresters in foreign countries.
He said the core skills foresters need are applicable anywhere in the world. The only thing an overseas forester needs to do is familiarize themselves with the local ecosystems, Rickenbach said.
“Foresters need a good understanding of forest ecology and know how to make land management decisions,” Rickenbach said.
As far as the aging population of foresters, Rickenbach said the same problem can be found with forestry academics. Graying forestry researchers and foresters in general is an issue UW is aware of but has not made radical changes to combat, Rickenbach said.
Though Wisconsin can’t grow wood as fast as southern forests, it does have its own advantages. Stoltman said the Northern Red Oak is well known for its grain and quality.
In addition, Wisconsin also still employs a significant number of foresters because forest land is owned by more private owners than in other states, Stoltman said. This means there are more private citizens managing their own land, often with less industrial equipment than corporate foresting companies.
Rickenbach said he does not see the state’s forestry industry in decline, instead he believes it is simply going through a low point in a continuing cycle.