Chris Knowles, Associate Professor of Wood Sciences and Engineering at Oregon State University and Dr. Robert Smith, Professor and head of the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
There's plenty of chatter these days about Millennials and their seeming aversion to the wood products industry, but the reasons behind this trend probably aren’t what you’d expect. Yes, recruitment has been a consistent challenge for college and university curricula that prepare students for a career in this line of work. However, based on our experiences with the programs at Oregon State University (OSU) and Virginia Tech, it's not because young people have a negative perception of the field or because they believe the sector isn't "sexy" or rewarding enough. The reality simply is that the vast majority of high school and post-secondary students are greatly unaware of the multitude of opportunities available in the wood products industry.
How Do We Get Students in the Wood Programs?
Some start school with a better understanding than others. Those with an intimate connection to the industry—usually through a family member with a relevant background—don’t equate it with “pulling green chain,” mill grunt work that’s now virtually obsolete. Rather, they understand that the possibilities awaiting them in this far-reaching industry are practically unlimited, with focuses including everything from sustainability and life-cycle analysis to buildings and energy. They typically come into the programs as freshmen, with an idea already of what they want to do with their degree.
This is the exception rather than the norm. Far more often, our students take a less direct route to joining the department. Some transfer in from community colleges, while others are already in place but are still undecided and taking general coursework. Many, though, have declared another major—largely based on a desire to meet parents’ expectations of them. According to a study conducted at Virginia Tech, students form a strong interest early on of what they want to be when they grow up; and that perception is shaped by the influences of their circle. For example, with Mom and Dad pushing for an education in engineering, architecture, or business—some of the largest areas of study from which we can recruit students—that’s often where they start. When that initial course of study doesn’t measure up to the students’ interests, they often find the wood products programs to be a better fit.
On-campus recruitment efforts religiously target these students, so why does enrollment in wood programs remain persistently low? Historically, based on what we have seen over the years at OSU, Virginia Tech, and a few other schools, the numbers typically range between 30-70 students. Virginia Tech currently has about 60 in its sustainable biomaterials degree program, roughly comparable to enrollment in OSU’s wood science and engineering curriculum. Virginia Tech would like to see enrollment climb to 200 (including graduates and undergraduates) by 2022; and OSU has a goal of doubling its enrollment during that five-year window.
Both of our institutions have explored numerous tactics to increase enrollment. We’ve had a modicum of success with hiring full-time recruiters, but this is a costly and not sustainable approach. Both also have undergone image makeovers by tweaking the name of the degree programs—a tactic taken elsewhere, too—to better reflect the range of industry and to, hopefully, draw in more females and minorities. While the Virginia Tech program historically has been populated by male students, with females once comprising less than 10 percent of the department, the 2012 switch from Wood Science and Forest Products to Sustainable Biomaterials made an impression. Coupled with the addition of a packaging science degree and a sustainability society option, the changes have helped drive female and minority participation up to 40 percent. OSU has seen similar gains since re-christening its Wood Science and Technology program, which had trended at about 80 percent male enrollment in the past. After reinventing the coursework under the banner of Renewable Materials and reshaping its messaging to specifically invite gender diversity, female students now account for more than half of enrollment.
The OSU program also has experimented with fun and informative YouTube videos to engage students, but social media outreach efforts have turned out mixed results and uneven impact. However, one strategy that has consistently produced results is the employment of students to recruit their peers. They hold seats on the recruitment committee at OSU, adding another perspective on what steps can be taken to attract a younger crowd. At Virginia Tech, they are known as Student Ambassadors who speak at different clubs and to various groups. On campus, students recruiting students has shown the most success. Without a doubt, their role in bringing attention to the different wood curricula is critical.
What More Can Be Done?
Even with the gradual improvement and small gains in recent years, much more needs to be done. Importantly, we need to find a way to elevate our programs to the status of “destination degree.” College recruiting efforts must start in prospects’ prime decision years: grades 10, 11, and 12. Right now, we are not front of mind with these teens—many of whom don’t even learn about this major and its myriad opportunities until well into their college journey. Virginia Tech has recently hired a college recruiter who spends time with school counselors and science teachers and speaks in high school classes. This has shown some success in the past two years. Unless we can become a destination degree, our programs will continue to struggle with ups and downs in enrollment. That suggests the need for a campaign of awareness about the industry: what kind of jobs there are to be had, what level of salaries can be expected (they’re on par with those in the engineering and business sectors, by the way), and what kind of impact can be made.
When asked about their future careers, young people often say they want greater independence and responsibility earlier in their careers; that they want opportunities for improvement, training and professional growth; and that they want to feel they are contributing to an organization’s success. Even more so, they overwhelmingly express a desire to “make a difference.” Typically, that involves ideals like helping the environment, making the world a better place, and giving back. Perhaps we haven’t done the best job of showcasing the wood products industry in this light. We are one of the most environmentally important sectors there is: Wood is a natural, renewable resource. Trees clean the air and water. The forest products industry provides critical employment in rural communities, and the global impact is sweeping. We’ve never tried to sell the industry as “sexy,” but it certainly has the potential to be tremendously fulfilling and even lucrative—this is the message we need to spread.
Finally, companies have to step up. We, at the universities, are in the business of educating and graduating students who get jobs, so we have a vested interest in seeing them succeed. But industry has a stake as well. Recruiting and retaining new talent is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector. As much of the current workforce approaches retirement, appealing to younger workers should be a priority. Companies must realize that spending time and money on student recruitment is an investment in their future, and they must be proactive about pursuing this next generation of employees. At the corporate level, individual firms would do well to establish strong ties with high schools and universities.
At the organizational level, maybe NAWLA should also consider supporting a committee or campaign to focused on this area. Engaging the next generation is currently one of NAWLA’s three strategic initiatives, and recruiting more young people into the industry is a top-of-mind issue with the organization’s leadership. This begins with NAWLA establishing broader relationships within the university community. Whatever path we take, we need to get there together, or risk watching wood programs quietly disappear from the academic landscape.
So, rather than seeking to reverse an imaginary resistance to the industry, we instead must target the real problem and address it by educating young people on just how far a wood-focused degree can take them.
About NAWLA (North American Wholesale Lumber Association)
NAWLA is the association that delivers unparalleled access to relationships and resources that improve business strategy and performance through sales growth, cost savings and operational efficiencies for wholesalers and manufacturers of forest products and other building materials that conduct business in North America. Learn more at www.nawla.org.