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WKYT Investigates | Pandemic’s impact on forest products industry

The pandemic has proven to be a roller coaster for some in the industry. The ride isn’t over yet.
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 3:13 PM EDT
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CLAY CITY, Ky. (WKYT) - At Powell Valley Millwork, a well-oiled machine is seen as more than a metaphor, but a crucial tool in the process to turn a piece of poplar into a product - moldings, millwork, parts for picture frames, even bedding for horses.

And they have kept that machine moving.

“I’m grateful that our business was deemed essential,” said Michael Thornberry, one of the owners of the family-run business.

He says work at the company’s two facilities never stopped during the pandemic, but, like lumber straight from the sawmill, they did have some knots and warps to work out along the way.

“The last 15 months have been the most challenging in our company’s history from that perspective,” Thornberry said of implementing new human resources policies and adjusting operations, “but the building materials industry didn’t slow down or stop last year. In fact, for us, the opposite occurred.”

The pandemic has proven to be a roller-coaster ride for Kentucky’s forest products industry, an industry that provides an estimated $14 billion in total economic contributions but has dealt with price increases and supply chain problems amid sky-high demand.

And even now - as those problems get better - many owners say staffing shortages have held back their ability to meet that demand.

“I think that we’ve weathered that storm of supply chain problems,” Thornberry said. “What we have before us today is a significant deficit in what our workforce could be.”

Thornberry said that has been the toughest problem for them to solve.

Right now they are running two shifts at their facility in Clay City, and they want to add a second shift at their Jeffersonville facility in Montgomery County, but they cannot fill the jobs.

Close to 50 positions are open between the two locations, Thornberry said.

In June, Thornberry organized a letter to Governor Beshear - signed by dozens of other companies in the Kentucky Forest Industries Association - calling for an end to enhanced unemployment benefits.

“As a business owner, it’s frustrating to see these opportunities on the horizon and know that you can’t meet the needs of your customers simply because you don’t have the people to work the wood,” Thornberry said.

Despite the problems, Thornberry hopes the past year and a half has shown the value of a domestic supply chain.

“There’s more strain on the global supply chain right now. We were seeing signs of it pre-COVID,” he said. “There’s a real opportunity for us to be manufacturing more at home. I can’t imagine any reason why we wouldn’t support more manufacturing at home.”

That, he said, would be a way to turn the many rough edges of the pandemic into something useful toward building a stronger economy for the future.

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