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Friday, May 30, 2014

Yard Work on Steroids

You may have a weekend of yardwork planned ahead, as I do. The Wife and I are not especially fanatics of yard work, but when forced (like this weekend, when we'll be prepping for a yard-based graduation party), we can get out and enjoy the sun and fresh air that goes along with a little hard work.

And then there's this couple.




Now that's true love :-)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More of that 1930's West Coast Logging

Old logging and sawmill videos are just about the most popular posts on Go Wood, and this one rates as one of the best. Great close-in filming, detailed narration, and even some old-time cowboy background music make this a thirty minutes well-spent.

And if you don't know what a Davis raft is, you'll want to stay on until the end to watch an "island of wood" being built for trans-oceanic delivery to the sawmills of Vancouver. Wow.

Next time you're in a home or building built pre-1950, look up at those beams and woodwork and think of the folks of the logging companies who made those old wooden castles possible.




Friday, May 23, 2014

Groundhog in a Fix, Threatens Suicide

Enjoying my breakfast yesterday out in the back sunroom, my eye caught a brown furry blur streaking through the undergrowth in the back yard. Sure enough, the invader was a central Pennsylvania groundhog (Marmota monax), which is not too surprising; we've had several share our hillside over the years. This sighting took a little different twist, however, when the little fellow decided to tour our deck. Groundhogs are shy critters and usually only seen by roadsides munching clover within a quick scamper of cover. But this one was feeling brave...until I followed him out onto the deck.




What we call groundhogs, here in Pennsylvania, are often called woodchucks. Which is a name I have heard myself called, probably a couple of thousand times. So I feel a kindred spirit to the furry fellows, even though they're not too friendly...can be downright mean, in fact.

I've wondered why they're called woodchucks...do they really throw wood chunks around?




I've never seen them act like that. Those must be Canadian woodchucks.

Actually...
"The etymology of the name woodchuck is unrelated to wood or chucking. It stems from an Algonquian (possibly Narragansett) name for the animal, wuchak. The similarity between the words has led to the popular tongue-twister:
      How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? 
     A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood!"
          - Wikipedia

So now you know...a real woodchuck won't chuck at all. Another myth of the world of wood debunked here today on Go Wood :-)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When a Tree Speaks

Just when you think you've seen all there is to see, someone finds another unique use of wood on the internet. Thanks to Andy B. who sent this along to me.


YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.


So that's what it feels like to spend a lifetime growing in one spot in a forest. Somewhat melancholy.

Being an audiophile myself, I noticed right away that the position of the stylus changes throughout the video, and is not always in sync with the recording. However, from 0:35 to 0:56 of the video the strumming we hear is in sync with the stylus crossing the knot. Very interesting...but is it real?

The folks at the website Realfarmacy.com must have wondered the same thing, and they did a little research on the video.  This is what they have to say about it:
"This is an excerpt from the record Years, created by Bartholom√§us Traubeck, which features seven recordings from different Austrian trees including Oak, Maple, Walnut, and Beech. What you are hearing is an Ash tree’s year ring data. Every tree sounds vastly unique due to varying characteristics of the rings, such as strength, thickness and rate of growth.
Keep in mind that the tree rings are being translated into the language of music, rather than sounding musical in and of themselves. Traubeck’s one-of-a-kind record player uses a PlayStation Eye Camera and a stepper motor attached to its control arm. It relays the data to a computer with a program called Ableton Live. What you end up with is an incredible piano track, and in the case of the Ash, a very eerie one."
Very eerie indeed. Sounds like this ash was suffering through an attack of the Emerald Ash Borer just before it was harvested.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bill Maher and Mike Rowe Discuss What Dirty Jobs Mean to America

Besides the great comments submitted on the last couple of posts, I had some insightful feedback via email. One especially interesting comment came from Glen in Arkansas, who said...
"The attitude of entitlement projected by so many of the young folks we interview at EFS is an epidemic. It's not, "What can I do for your firm and clients?" it's "What are you going to do for me?"
He went on to describe the reasons he believes this attitude is so common. I know, as the father of seven kids, five who are now teens and twenty-somethings, that their approach to life and values are different than mine were forty years ago. They definitely don't want to get dirty. I thought getting dirty was the fun part of work.

Generational differences, I suppose, have always been so. The important thing is to acknowledge and react to this different culture in a way that produces positive outcomes, those that bring production of goods and services back to its important and respected place in our world.

Quite by accident, I stumbled across this video of a Bill Maher television show from last summer, in which he interviews Mike Rowe, the host of a great show called Dirty Jobs. You may know him better from his Ford commercials. He has become a spokesman for hands-on work, in a way. The video is a funny but spot-on commentary on the jobs gap, and what can be done about it. Turn the volume down some, Maher's language is salty, as usual for him.



One way to re-instill the importance of strong work ethic in our society is to push back against the biases discussed by Rowe and Maher above with the message of pride and satisfaction in a job well done. The National Association of Manufacturers has taken on this task with an excellent short video that accurately reflects this feeling that too few of us seem to relate to these days.




It's a start. The challenge to those of us currently in the wood and forest industries is to make sure our companies offer the kind of work environment that really does allow folks to achieve The American Dream. The Dream changes slightly for every generation...but unless the work gets done, that dream will become very small, indeed.

Monday, May 12, 2014

More on Employees, Employment, and Life

Last time, we were considering the state of the modern wood products company, with respect to recruiting and keeping its employees. I hinted at the fact that higher education is actually a competitor for your best future employees.

At right is an interesting infographic from the video "Timber! There's a Gold Mine Out There" produced by the members of the Keystone Wood Products Association, a wood industry association here in Pennsylvania. The video, which is intended for viewing by middle-school and high-school students, begins with an educational story about the environmental value of sustainably-managed forests, and then goes on to provide the young folks with a look at the wood products industry, its role in harvesting the forest and converting the wood to value-added products, and the types of careers to be had. The infographic is especially interesting for a little-discussed issue in many high schools...in this case, that 85% of all the jobs in this particular industry can be had with simply a high-school education and on-the-job training. In other words, without the investment of time and money in higher education.

Recognizing this, the members of the KWPA decided to get into the education business themselves, and produced the following video. Their intent is to show young folks that careers in the industry are green, interesting, and available to all, not just those with higher education. Which is not to say they're against higher education...in fact, they discuss careers specifically requiring post-high school education. But they also send the message that a great and fulfilling career can also be attained simply by succeeding in high school and working hard on the job.




This message may seem a little sacrilegious to two or three generations of folks who were raised to think that a college degree is required to succeed in today's America. But I can tell you from personal experience, it just isn't the truth anymore, and probably never was. Sure, in a whole bunch of professions, higher education is an absolute necessity. But because the market balance of labor has shifted and technology has greatly improved, blue-collar jobs in most cases are now just as safe, secure, and profitable as most white-collar jobs. And for those who like to work with their hands and be a part of seeing things made, they can be tremendously rewarding. Not everyone was created to be chained to a desk.

So the first message to companies looking to hire future superstars is, get out there and develop your own educational message, and compete for those young hearts and minds. Spend more time involved in local school and civic activities...keep your company name out there, and make yourself and your company accessible to young folks who might just have that spark of interest that, left unfanned, will be doused by peer pressure to join the lemmings on their march to the university. You'd be surprised what a simple message in the high-school newspaper or on the high-school baseball team's outfield fence will yield.

But getting them is really the easy part. Keeping them is vastly more important, and difficult.

Do you know your workforce? Really? What motivates those who stay to stay, and those who leave to leave? What makes some employees grow into great employees with twenty years of experience, and others to linger around with one year of experience, twenty times?

The time of most human resource managers (or owners, in smaller businesses) are tied up with making sure employees are legal, safe, minimally trained, and paid. There just isn't much time for personnel development beyond that, with orders and regulatory deadlines to meet. But employee turnover is a primary reason! If you could retain your best folks, and gradually weed out the slackers (after getting to the root cause of their poor performance), then you could spend more time improving the ongoing improvement of your workforce...which is the real key to the competitiveness and success of your business.

One thing I sometimes suggest to companies is to look at their employee behaviors statistically. When you ask companies why employees leave, they will rattle of a list of reasons, mostly faults inherent in the employees themselves. But there are underlying causes that will help you improve your company, if you examine them analytically.

For example, look at the chart below. It's a simulated company history of employee terminations categorized by the numbers of years of employment at termination.


From this, we see some results that may be familiar to you. A high number of employees terminated in the first year of employment, and an even higher number of employees staying with the company for more than twenty years. Sounds like a typical company, and one that offers a fairly stable work environment.

But it offers a few pieces of data that provide areas of investigation. First, let's look at the first year terminations. Naturally, a few of them just didn't work out...they were unreliable, they dislike the work, they moved, or got thrown in jail. But what of the others...the ones who were working out great, and then just surprised you by taking their last paycheck and quitting on the spot?

I once had a young man march into my office and quit in his seventh month on the job. I was flabbergasted. I had recruited him out of a college half a country away, and he was already one of my favorite employees. He was hard-working, and I frequently complemented the quality of his work. I could tell that he would someday be one of the company's best employees.

But he gave as his reason for his leaving...that I disrespected his work. I thought I was hearing him wrong. Yes, yes, it was true...he was a degreed wood scientist and I simply didn't recognized the full contribution he brought to the research team. Then, he added, he and his wife really didn't like East Texas...the slow service in the local restaurants drove them crazy.

I didn't realize the validity of his second point until I moved to the Northwest a few years later. Yes, he had a point. East Texas restaurants are a little slow. But then again, everything in East Texas is a little slow. There just isn't much of a need to be in a hurry there. Most of us think that part of its charm. This fellow (and his wife, he made a point of saying) obviously didn't find it so charming.

But I have a suspicion that if I had recognized the first point, that of perceived disrespect, and taken appropriate steps to help the fellow feel a little better about his job and contribution, the fellow and his wife could have learned to slow down a little with the rest of us, and he would have contributed to our efforts for a lot longer that seven months. Which would have made us a better team.

Now, back to our termination graph above. What of that increase in terminations in the fifth and sixth years of employment? The natural assumption is that they grew in their job, became more highly qualified, and turned that experience into a new opportunity with another company. But did they necessarily have to leave? Or did the company environment make that the easiest path for them to take?

The easiest out for companies to take is that the competition paid them more than they could afford to keep them. But paradoxically, these are often the same companies that maintain that rate of pay isn't everything in a job. And they would be right. But while it may not be everything, it certainly is a primary factor. The fact is, we have to become more creative with what is sometimes called "at-risk" pay, compensation in the forms of bonuses, profit-sharing, perks, etc.

Most companies have at-risk incentives for at least higher-level white collar positions in the company. But think about it...given their training and expectations of performance in their jobs, are white-collar employees any more in need of incentivization than other employees? And couldn't incentivization produce just as good results in the blue-collar positions as they do elsewhere? View it from another perspective...couldn't poor attitudes on the shop floor hurt the company just as badly as poor attitudes in the front office?

When you really think about well-trained employees, usually your best, leaving for another company for a 10-20% increase in pay, and then think of the impact on the operation of losing that person, you may realize that an increase in pay, especially if it could be made as incentivized pay, would be cheap indeed.

Finally, what about all those employees that stayed on for 20+ years? Good for them. But have you really analyzed why they stayed on while others didn't? What made them special? Try this - break them into two groups, one of those that you think of as good, productive, employees, and the other as those who stayed on because they probably had to.  Which group is larger? If it is the second, your company environment is rewarding the wrong things.

I'll leave you with one last story. One of my first assignments out of college was to work with a team of managers and supervisors of a wet-process fiberboard plant. It was a big, hot, sweaty, dark place with leaky pipes and steam shooting everywhere. I loved that place.

One day,  I called a meeting to outline the components of a continuous improvement effort I thought would help motivate employees and improve efficiency of the operation.  It was going badly. At the time, their production numbers were down due to process problems, they were behind on orders, and upper management was pushing hard. And now they had to listen to a dumb college boy tell them how to improve the place. They were not in good moods, and their silence at my suggestions showed it.

I was working hard to get the enthusiasm in the room turned up a little. But I believed in what I was saying...that the plant really could become a different kind of place to work. That it could be fun to work there again. And then, in a final bit of over-the-top enthusiasm, I blurted out, that we could turn that plant into a place that we would be proud for our children and our grandchildren to work in.

For a second, there was dead silence in the room. They, as they looked from me to each other...they simultaneously burst out into the loudest, heartiest laughter that plant has probably ever heard. These guys were killing themselves precisely so that their kids and grandkids could stay away from that hot, smelly, steam-bath. My suggestion seemed so preposterous, it was just hilarious.

I have to admit, I laughed right along with them. In the moment, it was really funny.

But they were wrong in the root of their laughter. Even if they couldn't turn that old plant into a place where they wanted their kids to work, they would have been far better off for trying. And if they had, and the company had really supported their efforts, the last thirty years around there might have been a lot better, and more profitable.

After all, as the saying goes, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.




Friday, May 9, 2014

On Education, Employee Loyalty, and Life

Well, here it is, this time of year again. The young folks are walking around campus in their blue cap and gowns, proud parents in tow, taking pictures of themselves standing in front of every landmark on campus. It is a happy time. This time last year, I was celebrating the launch of a young career in the wood industry. Carol Chang in fact landed a great job in the furniture industry, and has already had some of her work used in Architectural Digest.

This time around, though, my thoughts are in a little different place. I've been spending a lot of time recently with companies that are trying to figure out this puzzling economy, and in some cases, how to deal with employee recruitment and retention issues.

If you've been in industry for a while, you know that every time the economy begins to pick up, employee issues flip from having too many (during the downturn) to not having enough (during the upswing). This time around, the "upswing" has been very gradual, and employee-related government regulations are in transition, so the need to rush out and hire has not been pressing.

But gradually, we're beginning to see the larger companies beginning to "buy" employees from smaller competitors. And in response, companies losing employees are seeking skilled replacements from a seemingly smaller pool of talent.

How can this be, when we read in the news that nearly 102 million working-age Americans are unemployed? If so, surely two or three million out there would be willing to run a CNC machine,drive a forklift, or sell lumber...right? And if so, where are they?

Answers to this question are varied, complex, and difficult to examine without sinking into political discourse. And yet, the problem remains conceptually simple...you want new employees that are well-prepared for their job, will fit in with your organization, and show at least enough loyalty to put in a few good, productive years for your company.

Which is why more companies are turning to our education system for help. More and more, we're seeing efforts of "public/private partnership" undertaken with the hopes that an investment by the private sector in public education will result in the great employees envisioned by that industry's leaders.

Which brings me to an excellent but thought-provoking article posted recently on the Woodworking Network.  Dean Mattson, the author of the piece, is a high school teacher who not only specializes in cabinet-making classes but was named last year as the "Wooden Globe Educator of the Year" by the Woodworking Machinery Industry Association. He writes of his experiences in the past year dealing with his new fame and the responsibilities that go with it.

But embedded in this inspiring story of a new educational model and its successes are hints of a larger problem...the role of education, its impact on our economy, and on the evolution of our society from a hands-on producer world to a clean-hands consumer world.

The first hint was found in the following paragraph:
"Industry thrives on taking risks, being nimble and rewarding innovation. The educational system has succeeded for over 200 years by relying on stability, purposeful planning and tried and true practices. Some of the changes we are trying to implement created a host of philosophical, structural and systematic challenges for an organization as large an unwieldy as public education."
He goes on to assure us to not worry, these fundamental differences will eventually be overcome. I'm not so sure.

Mr. Mattson goes on  to share with us a great story of three students, the "Three Amigos", who thrived in his program and are now in a position to start their careers. But wait, maybe not...because Oregon State University "has offered them scholarships to help build OSU’s wood program." It looks for the time being that the Beavers will have to wait, because two of the young men have taken jobs with the industry. Perhaps some day in the near future they'll change their minds and decide that the college life sounds pretty good after all. The third decided to attend another university, desiring to some day "become an attorney employed by the wood industry." We'll see if a few years of higher education change his career ambitions somewhat.

In this nice little tale of the success of three hardworking young men, we see a deeper truth...that the whole world is in competition for them.

The high school woodworking program needed them as raw material to contribute to the success of their program. Similar great programs across the country struggle to lure bright, committed young folks to their technical curriculum against the traditional high-school curriculum leading them to college admission.

The trade schools, colleges, and universities need them, because young bodies mean revenue in their business model. Trade schools at least theoretically lead young folks such as the Three Amigos to careers in their chosen trade. Colleges and universities, to be honest, lure young folks with dreams of something better, dreams that usually include expectations of wealth, authority, and saving the world.

And the companies who invested in their public education, with expectation of the chance to hire them someday? Well, they have the first leg up...but they'll find they have to continue to continually compete for their new recruits' services. The best people always have a chance to move on...and they will. Loyalty to a company, like so many other quaint little things, seems to have become disappearing remnant of the last century's values and morals.

At least in America, people eventually wind up pretty close to what they aspire to be. The best, most naturally skilled woodworkers, forklift operators, clerks, salesmen and supervisors will eventually find their niche in life, regardless of whether they started out with a high-school degree or a Ph.D. in the Greek classics. While we dream of an educational system that produces the perfectly-groomed employee for our businesses, reality lies in Mr. Mattson's paragraph above. Large, centralized systems at their best tend to stifle creativity and lag market demand by years, even decades. And at their worst, they produce standardized, poorly-motivated citizens who expect a "fair wage", roughly meaning they should be paid the same as their neighbor, regardless of their personal contribution.

Next post, I'll provide some suggestions on what your company can do about this dilemma.