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Pioneer Editorial: Challenge is finding 21st century jobs

Just before a weekend when we celebrate "labor" in its truest sense, that of the blue-collar worker, the news that 110 production wor-kers no longer have jobs at Ainsworth Lum-ber Co. Ltd.'s Bemidji plant is bitter sweet.

It not only means 110 men and women laid off from work, but also extends to their families who will need support as new work is sought. And it extends to second-level workers, such as the loggers in the woods who now lack contracts as the plant ceases use of nearly half its production by eliminating one of its two production lines. Add to that the purchas-ing power of the plant and the families in timber industry supplies to groceries, and the whole community suffers.

We may take issue with Ainsworth for its process -- summarily ending jobs for 110 people only two years after it purchased a long-standing and productive plant. Layoffs can always be handled better, but in the end it's still people without jobs. Ainsworth could have kept those jobs by investing and bringing the 1981 production line up to date, and we certainly would have preferred that.

But, in a business sense, the cards were in play from a number of sectors. Company officials say the move is necessary because of the high costs of production and current market conditions. Ainsworth's second quarter report, issued earlier this month, showed $234.3 million in sales for the quarter, down from $329.9 million for the same quarter in 2005. Falling market prices for commodity ori-ented strand board, which is made in Bem-idji, was cited, leading to a company ship-ment volume decrease of 9.9 percent for the quarter, compared to the 2005 quarter.

Some factors have been cited for years in our area, including the lack of wood from the Chippewa National Forest as actual harvests are below allowable sale quantities and that stumpage fees on state and county lands are among the highest in the nation, which boosts production costs. An ongoing trade dispute between Canada and the U.S. over softwood appears near an end, but not soon enough to keep production going here. The U.S. anti-dumping duties have been applied to billions of dollars of Canadian softwood exported to the U.S. every year, in retaliation of cheaper Canadian wood flooding U.S. markets.

The timber industry remains an important economic engine for our region, and hopefully the loss of Ainsworth's jobs can eventually be made up elsewhere in the sector in new uses for wood other than OSB and with improved markets and an accountable but less burdensome regulatory environment.

But it also points to the need for diversification in the local economy, seeking more high-paid, highly trained jobs in sectors not affected by sudden moves in the market which effect static production lines. Local efforts to grow bio-tech and bio-energy industries and digital jobs is a right direction.

On a smaller scale, we now join St. Paul which must now cope with the loss of its Ford plant and thousands of jobs. We both need to figure out 21st century jobs to replace outmoded 20th century manufacturing.