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Employment: Mechanization
Changing Costs, Changing Methods

Prior to the early 1800s, logging meant using a two-man saw to fell a tree, more saws to cut the limbs from the fallen trunk, and a bull-team to drag the logs to a waterway, where they would be floated to market. This relatively slow process would change in response to new economic realities.

In his book The Last Wilderness, Murray Morgan (1980) describes how changing economics of that period led to changing methods of cutting down trees. As the cost of forest land--called standing timber, or "stumpage"--began to rise, and land taxes became a reality, logging operators set about protecting their profits by speeding up the logging process. Speeding up meant replacing men and animals with machines, a development called mechanization.

Image of some men standing in front of a steam engine donkey. This image links to a more detailed image.Mechanization of the logging industry began with the introduction of the steam-engine "donkey" in 1882 (Washington Iron Works TL-6 Trakloader, 1997). This led to a logging technique called "high-lead" logging. High-lead logging required a steam-engine donkey, steel cables, a single, tall, standing "spar" tree. Photo: Courtesy of British Columbia Archives, Province of British Columbia ( Call #F-08713.

In the photograph below, taken in 1929, a "high climber" is preparing a spar tree. He is to the left of the remaining limbs on the tree. He has cut off all the branches up to that point. Next, he will "top" the tree and push the top away from him. What will be left is a spar tree. The spar tree will be rigged with a pass block and cables. A steam-engine donkey will pull on the cables and swing the logs through the air to a "yard," or assembly point.

High-lead logging sped the harvest and meant increased profits for the operators--but not for the men who did this dangerous work.1 As mechanization continued, and fewer loggers were needed in the forest, many were laid off. Morgan (1980) reports that tensions increased in the camps as the economic gap between the operators and workers widened and injuries on the job multiplied.

Image of a tree that links to a more detailed image.Photo: Special Collections Division, Univeristy of Washington Libraries. Negative # Pickett 4426a. Not to be copied or downloaded without permission.

Mechanization and Jobs in the Forest Industry
Stories of how the mechanization of the forest industry deprived individuals of their jobs and lowered their standard of living are common throughout British Columbia. Between 1960 and 1980, the introduction of automated equipment for cutting and milling lumber reduced the required workforce in some mills by as much as two-thirds M'Gonigle, M., & Parfitt, B. (1994). Forestopia. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour.

New Mills, but Fewer Jobs
As companies modernized their mills, mechanization decreased the number of employees needed to run them.

These two mills [Alberta Pacific and Diasowa-Marubeni. Located in Canada], and another four or five up or in construction, do provide employment. But for the Diashowa mill the project engineer, H.A. Simons, notes that it is 'engineered to run on minimum manpower, using a total of about 300 employees, versus 500 to 600 with comparably sized operations.' Marchak, M. P. (1995). Logging the globe. Montreal & Kingston, Jamaica: McGill-Queen's University Press, p. 63.

Technology and Jobs
Advances in technology eliminated many labor-intensive tasks, decreasing the number of mill employees.

Employment in all sectors of the northern forest industry has declined since 1960. The basic cause is technology that reduces or eliminates labour input. Feller-bunchers[2] in the northern woods, high-powered automatically controlled saws in sawmills, and computer-controlled operators in pulpmills have displaced workers. Marchak, M. P. (1995). Logging the globe. Montreal & Kingston, Jamaica: McGill-Queen's University Press, p 38.

Not shown in data on trends are changes in the composition of jobs. As mills became automated, the jobs occupied by unskilled labour were most frequently phased out. Workers had to be able to read computer printouts and learn how to operate new kinds of machinery, so higher educational levels were demanded. In pulpmills, except for tradesworkers, an increasing proportion of jobs are available only to university-trained engineers. In the woods, foresters have supplanted loggers in some jobs. The same impacts have occurred in salaried jobs in management and clerical occupations: incumbents need to be computer-literate and generally require advanced education. Among the social impacts of such changes is the loss of access for first-generation immigrants who do not speak the dominant language and have low educational levels, together with others who have not completed high school or gained trades skills. In many rural regions these people were once major sources of labour in the forest industry. Marchak, M. P. (1995). Logging the globe. Montreal & Kingston, Jamaica: McGill-Queen's University Press, p. 41.

The sustainability of a community that relies mostly on forest resources is another issue. Click here for background on the topic, and then click on the highlighted word at the end of each page to move on.

1High-lead logging was hazardous. High climbers could slip and fall. "Conk rot" could weaken tree structure. Climbers had to thunk the trunk with the back of their axes as they climbed to test the tree's strength. The men on the ground were at risk from both the "bite of the line"--getting snapped by the guywires as they became taut--and the swinging logs as they were moved to the yard (High Climbing, 1997; Ye Olde Logging, 1997).

2A "feller-buncher" is a device that holds onto a tree while the tree is in the ground, cuts the tree at its base, and moves the cut tree and lays it down on an appropriate pile for loading onto a log truck. The machine is computer-controlled and can be operated by just one logger and eliminates at least 2 or 3 other on-site jobs. The machine does tend to compact soil where it operates.

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