Spokane Journal of Business

Idaho Forest Group apprenticeships help to expand skilled workforce

Lumber producer offers training to employees with ‘aptitude to learn’

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Electrical apprentice Nicholas Wright is employed at Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest Group’s finger joint mill in Athol, Idaho.

Millwrights, industrial electricians, and heavy-duty mechanics are in high demand at Idaho Forest Group’s sawmills right now, says Marie Price, the lumber company’s director of training and development.

Price says she’s seen Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest Group LLC, which was founded in 2008, expand and grow the educational opportunities offered to its 1,200 employees as the need for skilled laborers remains high.

IFG began a registered apprenticeship program for two skilled trades—millwrights and heavy-duty mechanics—in 2013. The company since has added apprenticeship programs for boiler and kiln operators and three distinct saw filer programs, including saw filer skidders, saw filer benchers, and head filers.

Saw filers are responsible for sharpening the saws and cutting the wood, and the head filer oversees the saw filing unit, Price says.

IFG has a handful of participants enrolled in a state-sponsored electrician apprenticeship for a total of seven apprenticeship programs.

“A millwright is basically a maintenance worker that has to have a wide variety of skills and there just weren’t enough college or technical college programs available to teach that skill,” Price says. “There’s lots of chains, lots of conveyor belts, so all of that needs constant upkeep, as you can imagine.”

Currently, 66 active apprentices are enrolled in the forest group’s apprenticeship programs.

Price began working for IFG in 2018 after working with the lumber manufacturer for four years as the director of workforce training for Coeur d’Alene-based North Idaho College.

At NIC, Price partnered with IFG and other forest product companies to help develop training and apprenticeships to advance their workforces, she says.

“North Idaho College has a technical millwright program and also Lewis-Clark State College (in Lewiston, Idaho), but the demand outstrips the supply of students,” Price adds.

IFG employees who finish their registered apprenticeships, which can take four to five years to complete, will get a wage increase and the title of journeyman, Price says.

New millwrights at IFG earn between $24 to $29 per hour and journeyman wages start at $31.29 per hour, she says.

To date, 180 people have completed IFG’s apprenticeship programs.

Apprentices learn trade skills through a combination of on-the-job training and related instruction. “We’re still doing a lot of training online and we’re slowly getting back to in-person training. We also will partner with our local community college for the related instruction through North Idaho College or Lewis-Clark State College,” Price adds.

“Our company has a grow-your-own philosophy,” Price says. “When someone at our company is eager to learn, has a strong work ethic, can reason, and wants to grow with our company, we are willing to invest in that person, because we want to keep them, and we want them to grow with us.”

Price says IFG owner and CEO Marc Brinkmeyer looks for certain qualities in employees who show an interest in growing their skills.

“Marc likes to say we look for three attributes: aptitude to learn, ability to reason, and a strong work ethic,” Price says.

Price declines to disclose the annual revenue at IFG, but says the company covers most of the cost for employees to attend apprenticeship training. Apprenticeship costs can vary depending on the program, but Price says that the electrical apprenticeship program at NIC or LCSC can cost between $1,700 and $2,000 per year.

“We cover that for our employees,” Price says. “It’s the cost of doing business.”

Price says there are over 200 millwrights and mechanics across IFG’s operations.

IFG operates mills in the Idaho communities of Chilco, Athol, Laclede, Moyie Springs, Lewiston, and Grangeville. Its headquarters are located at 687 Canfield, Ste. 100, in Coeur d’Alene.

“We want to ensure that each one of our millwrights and mechanics are skilled and competent,” she says.

Another strategy IFG uses to increase its skilled laborer workforce is a school-to-registered apprenticeship program for high school students ages 16 and 17 years old. Price says students begin the apprenticeship while still in school and can earn high school credits for related instruction and get on-the-job experience. There are 10 students participating in the program currently.

In addition to the apprenticeship programs, IFG offers academic tuition reimbursement of up to the IRS limit of $5,250 a year, Price says. Degree programs must be preapproved by the employee’s department manager and related to employment with the company to qualify.

Price says IFG has 36 open positions at all of its Idaho operations. In addition to the skilled laborer positions, employment opportunities are available, “for people with business backgrounds, with accounting backgrounds, IT computer science backgrounds, and engineering backgrounds,” she says.

Price says that IFG has also started on the construction of a new mill in Lumberton, Mississippi. The company expects to employ 135 people at the site, including engineers, instrumentation, electronics, electrical, and maintenance technicians, IT specialists, human resources, and accounting staff, according to its website. IFG will also offer apprenticeships and internships there.

Price claims lumber, such as IFG produces, has the lowest carbon footprint of any building material.

“Lumber actually sequesters carbon, so the forest practices we support reduce carbon emissions, and the (environmental) practices in our facilities do as well,” she contends.

“Our vision and our focus is to be at the forefront of technology and innovation and to have a first-class workforce,” Price says.

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Erica Bullock
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Reporter Erica Bullock has worked at the Journal since 2019 and covers real estate and construction. She is a craft beer enthusiast, who loves to garden and go camping with friends.

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