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MARCH NIBJ: Training helps Idaho Forest Group chart strong future

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | February 27, 2024 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Marie Price still remembers the apprentice.

The director of Idaho Forest Group's training and development program was visiting the company's Laclede mill early one morning when she discovered the Sandpoint High School student was already there.

"So this young man would come to work from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. and then go to school," Price recalled. "I was so impressed with this young man's work ethic."

The student would go on to attend North Idaho College and work for the company as an apprentice.

The student is just one example of what is possible through Idaho Forest Group's training programs, which includes a registered apprenticeship program through the U.S. Department of Labor.

The company also created a series of "work-up steps," creating visible pathways for advancement and career opportunities. That helps employees — and potential employees — the ability to grow their skills and advance within the company.

With each step, employees can earn more money.

Those steps are outlined during the interview process, and provide motivation once employees are on board, Tommy Groff, manager of IFG's Laclede mill, said.

"They're motivated to stay because they can see a path of growth in wages and in their skillsets," he added. "So it's not only a recruitment but it's a retention because once you have them, you don't want to lose them."

Among the programs helping attract new employees and show potential career paths is IFG's registered apprenticeship program. Apprentices gain training and skills and companies can tap into a source of potential employees.

"They can have a pathway of learning and advancement, and it culminates with a certificate that they've completed the apprenticeship and are now considered a journeyman worker in the trade," Price said.

Apprentices are matched with a mentor who helps the business provide structured on-the-job training, which is combined with scheduled training. Apprentices can start in high school and, by the time they graduate, have a year of their training already completed.

"They're getting a jump on the training and the experience they need," Price said.

As technology evolves and changes, so do the training and opportunities available to both existing and potential employees, giving them the ability to craft whatever career they wish, she said.

Since starting the program roughly 10 years ago, Idaho Forest Group's registered apprenticeship program has grown to include eight options, with the heavy truck driver program the latest addition.

"When you have these structured programs that provide advancement in knowledge, skills and wages, we have higher retention rate and in a point-in-time study we did looking at one year after our apprentices completed their program, our retention rate was 88%, which is substantially better than the norm," Price said.

In the 10 years since starting the program, IFG has had over 200 apprentices complete the program, with 69 active. In 2023, the company welcomed 22 new apprentices and saw 20 complete the program.

"It's something we at IFG use as a talent development strategy at all of our locations in Idaho," Price said.

Price and Groff said the apprenticeship program is just one avenue for training and continuing education offered by Idaho Forest Group. There is in-house training, outreach programs with local high schools, support for classes at local community colleges, and even a partnership with the British Columbia Institute of Technology for a year-long wood product training program.

"We just really believe in training our labor force and ensure that they have the skills and the continued learning that they need to become experts in their field," Price said.

Relationships with local high schools help students see the possibility of a career in the trades, with many of the top students often applying for one of the internship or apprentice programs.

Career paths at IFG include everything from millwrights and electricians to drone operators and robotics experts — and everything in between. Trending needs also include software development and analysts. Groff and Price said the diversity in jobs is reflective of modern mills, which are automated, efficient, and constantly evolving.

"When you show them a video and then shown them the technology that it takes," Groff said. "Everything is automated, everything's using a programmable logic controller and takes high tech vision to be able to make these decisions and create an actual product. They see that and they get excited about it and they're like, 'Wow, this is cool.'"

Idaho Forest Group officials said the training programs show both existing and potential employees what is possible, that it is possible to have a well-paying career in the field of their choosing at the company. That their future, whatever they choose to make it, is both possible and achievable without having to leave 

"There are true high-level career opportunities with this company and right in our communities that really plays to the heritage of our industry and this community," Groff said. " … so it's pretty exciting and something to be proud of. Some people may feel like it's a dying industry but it's not. There's a lot of great careers to be had here."

It used to be that "job jumping" was seen as a sign of disloyalty or someone who may not have the strongest work ethic. That isn't the case in today's world, Price said. In today's economy, especially among younger workers, changing jobs is merely a way to advance their careers.

Through the company's training programs, Price and Groff said employees can learn any aspect of the mill, even seek supervisory and leadership skills to pursue a management path.

"We want to provide that job advancement," Price said. "We want to give them that vision for advancement."

    Dylan Chapman poses for a photo with his mentor, David Williams, maintenance manager with IFG Laclede. The Sandpoint High School graduate began working at Idaho Forest Group as a millwright apprentice through the School to Registered program. He recently completed the company's millwright apprenticeship program and is now an industrial electrician apprentice for the company.