Billie Jo Spencer, a filer bencher apprentice at the Moyie Springs sawmill near Bonners Ferry for Idaho Forest Group (IFG), has been moving up the pay scale by increasing her job skills through IFG and Idaho Department of Labor apprenticeship programs.
The Moyie Springs mill produces about 200 million board feet of dimension lumber products per year. It requires a skilled work force to keep the mill running smoothly and efficiently, IFG officials say.
Spencer started working for IFG 12 years ago, driving a fork lift. She completed the Filer-Fitter apprenticeship a couple years ago, and she’s working on her second apprenticeship as a saw filer.
“I’m always learning something,” she says. “I’m putting teeth in the saws and welding the shoulders.”
There are three levels of being a filer bencher, Spencer says. She’s on level one right now, and hopes to continue to move up to the higher levels. IFG mills are highly automated for efficiency. At the Moyie mill, raw logs are rough-cut by special machinery as they enter the mill on a conveyer belt. Farther down the line, the large blocks of wood are sawed into stud lumber in 8- and 9-foot- long sections.
“The saws can get hot, so we need to make sure everything on the production line can keep running smoothly,” she says.
Spencer started out making $18.80 at the mill, and now she’s making a base wage of $24.54 with $2/ hour additional pay for working at night. She’s worked there for 12 years, while raising three kids at her home in the beautiful woodsy town of Bonner’s Ferry. She owns her own home.
“I’ve worked really hard to move up the ladder,” she says. “It’s really the best job I’ve ever had. They take really good care of us with benefits and bonuses. My son is just getting started at the mill as well.”
Knowing that only about 47 percent of high school graduates go on to college in Idaho, working in the trades can be an appealing choice for men or women. Over time, state officials are seeing a slight increase in women choosing that path because the jobs pay well and require a strong skill set. As of last year, women comprised about 18 percent of Idaho’s workforce in trade occupations, a 2 percent increase since 2007.
Women are working as electricians, plumbers, iron workers, sheet metal fabricators, saw filers, welders, boilermakers, carpenters and more.
Currently, the Idaho Department of Labor partners with Idaho businesses to provide 381 apprenticeship programs in 102 occupations. Today, there are more than 1,700 active apprentices going through classroom and on-the-job training, with 215 program sponsors and 171 employer partners participating in the program. In general, IDOL covers the cost of the education training, and the employers pay students a competitive wage while they’re learning on the job.
Industry officials say the apprenticeship programs are vital to hiring and grooming qualified candidates for highly skilled jobs, and also key to filling positions at a time when all employers are having a hard time filling job openings statewide.
At Idaho Forest Group, the company offers six registered apprenticeship programs that provide education classes and paid, on-the-job training for qualified candidates. The programs help IFG recruit job candidates, officials said.
“There are very few technical education programs that teach maintenance/millwright skills,” said Marie Price, IFG Director of Training and Development. “Students from these programs are in high demand around the country. IFG realizes that we must grow our own skilled workforce, and we view our registered apprenticeships as a key talent-development strategy.”
For high school students who might want to get into the wood products field, they can get a head start by applying for IFG’s School to Registered Apprenticeship Program (STRAP) and train for millwright and maintenance positions that are normally available to young men and women who are 18 or older, Price said.
Kids enrolled in STRAP learn job skills in the mills while taking technical education classes at the same time. “We partner with many high schools, many in rural locations, to recruit students into the STRAP program,” she says.
To learn more about how to tap into the Idaho Forest Group apprenticeship programs, contact the Post Falls Idaho Department of Labor office or go to https://ifg.com/careers/.
News Editors / Directors – For photos or video to accompany this story, please contact Marie Price, IFG director of training and development at 208-946-6235.
— Steve Stuebner a professional writer who writes about Idaho Department of Labor apprenticeship programs.