Wood scientists and technologists experiment to find the most efficient ways of converting forest resources into useful products for consumers. Toward this end, they explore the physical, biological, and chemical properties of wood and the methods used in growing, processing, and using it. Wood science is conducted for both academic and industrial research and is carried out both in labs and on forest grounds.
Wood Science and Technology Workers Career History
Wood is one of the oldest and most versatile raw materials. It has provided shelter, tools, and furniture since prehistoric times. Since the technological revolution, scientists have found ways to treat and process wood in more innovative ways, which has allowed it to be used in many products—everything from plywood to wood plastics—that were unheard of only a few decades ago. From these efforts to find better ways of using wood, the field of wood science technology was developed. Experimentation during World War II marked its modern beginnings, and the field has advanced remarkably since then. Today, more than 5,000 different products use wood as their primary raw material.
Before wood can be used in the making of these products, it must be processed. This can include drying, finishing, seasoning, gluing, machining, or treating for preservation. Wood scientists and technologists study these techniques, in conjunction with the chemical and structural properties of wood, to discover new ways to utilize and enhance wood’s strength, endurance, and versatility.
Like metallurgy and plastics manufacturing, wood science is concerned with materials engineering. While wood is one of the earth’s few renewable resources, it must be wisely grown, harvested, and used to maximize its benefit. Lumber companies have to plan when and which trees to harvest, and what types of trees to plant now for harvesting in 30 years, so as to get the greatest use of the timberlands. Manufacturers of wood products must use the most efficient methods of converting wood into useful products, so as to achieve the least amount of waste and greatest durability. Wood science helps to fulfill these goals as it works toward more economical and efficient ways to satisfy people’s need for wood products.
Wood Science and Technology Workers Job Description
Some workers in wood science and technology are involved in research. They work for large wood product firms, universities, or the government on various research projects, ranging from the development of new wood plastics to the designing of methods to cut wood without producing sawdust. Tim Murphy, project manager for Aspen Research Corporation, is one such researcher.
Murphy’s company is a contract research firm that researches and designs products for other companies. He works in the forest products division, where he and his team of scientists and engineers take on various projects all aimed at making better use of wood products. “Primarily what we work with are engineered wood composites,” Murphy says. “In trying to develop a better product for our clients, we focus on a number of specific scientific challenges.” Depending on the product under development, Murphy’s team might try to enhance the wood’s strength or impact resistance by adding fiberglass, adhesives, or polymers to the processed wood.
Another area of work in wood and science technology, which is similar to Murphy’s work, is manufacturing. This is the most diverse area of the field, with jobs encompassing product and process development, quality control, production control, engineering, personnel relations, and general management.
Some wood and science technology careers are in the area of technical service. Technical service representatives for wood industry suppliers use their knowledge of wood to enhance the efficiency of their clients’ operations. They may work for a chemical company, a machinery manufacturer, or another service-oriented businesses. State and federal governments also hire workers in this capacity.
Specialists who work in these areas typically fall into one of three categories of workers: wood scientists, wood technologists or wood products engineers and wood products technicians.
Wood scientists explore the chemical, biological, and physical properties of different woods. They try to find ways to make wood last longer and work better. They also look for faster, more efficient ways to turn wood into lumber, plywood, chemicals, paper, and other products. For example, they develop and improve ways to season or chemically treat wood to increase its resistance to wear, fire, fungi, decay, insects, or marine borers.
All wood must be dried before it can be put to any permanent use in construction or furniture. Wood scientists experiment with methods of drying or curing wood, firing it in kilns at different temperatures and for varying lengths of time, to find ways that will save energy and toughen the wood against warping and other defects.
Because of their thorough knowledge of the properties of different types of wood—pliability, strength, and resistance to wear—wood scientists are able to recommend which woods are most appropriate for certain uses. They can tell what hard and soft woods will make useful lumber and what fast-growing trees can be harvested for plywood and particleboard.
While wood scientists often work in the research area of the industry, wood technologists work primarily for industry. Like scientists, they are also knowledgeable about the scientific properties of wood, but they look at the subject from a business perspective. These specialists work toward finding new ways to make wood products, with a minimum waste of wood, time, and money. Their jobs may combine responsibilities in areas that are usually considered the exclusive domain of either business or science, including materials engineering, research, quality control, production, management, marketing, or sales. “In this field, you really have to want to be involved in both science and business,” Murphy says. “Normally, scientists don’t have anything to do with business, so this is kind of an interesting blend.”
In many ways, wood technologists carry on the work of the wood scientists, by investigating the differing qualities of woods. As employees of paper mills, sawmills, or plywood mills, they may test woods as well as new kilns and new sawmill machines. They may cooperate with foresters who grow and harvest wood. If working for a wood products manufacturer, technologists may experiment with new methods of drying, joining, gluing, machining, and finishing lumber. In many cases, they also direct and oversee the activity of other workers, accumulate and analyze data, and write reports.
Wood technologists also work closely with their clients, who may be wood manufacturers or the buyers and distributors of wood products. If a sporting goods manufacturer is looking for light, resilient woods for making skis, for example, the wood technologist machines, treats, and supplies this wood. The technologist may even direct scientific research into new methods of improving the quality of wood for making skis. The wood technologist also knows how to test the wood for the qualities the buyer needs. New tooling machines may need to be designed, new processing techniques might need to be perfected, and workers may need to be hired or specially trained to accomplish the end goal. The wood technologist often coordinates all of these activities for both the company’s purposes and the advancement of wood science.
Wood technologists often oversee the work of wood products technicians, who also add to the efficiency and profitability of their companies through their knowledge of wood and its properties. Wood products technicians operate kilns, plywood presses, and other machines used in the processing and treating of wood. They may also work in product testing and quality control, helping technologists and engineers overcome problems and expand the horizons of wood science.
Almost all careers in wood science and technology involve a substantial amount of paperwork. Project documentation, as with any scientific study, is extensive and constant. “The people on my team spend about 50 percent of their time actually in the lab, and the other half of the time on project communications, proposal writing, design layout, and process studies,” Murphy says.
Wood Science and Technology Workers Career Requirements
Because of the variety of work done in wood science, there are several academic paths that can be taken to prepare for a career in this field. Almost all of these jobs, however, require education after high school.
Many different specialties are contained within the wood science field. Therefore, a broad understanding of many subjects will prove more useful than extensive study of a single discipline.
Because careers in wood science and technology are heavily scientific in nature, you should take as many high school science classes as possible. Biology, chemistry, and earth sciences are likely to be especially helpful. Mathematics is another important focus area for career preparation. Many jobs in this industry are engineering jobs, which require a solid grasp of advanced math skills. Because both written and oral communication plays such a role in scientific research, English and speech classes are good choices to help you develop these skills.
A bachelor’s degree is required for employment as a wood scientist or wood technician. Tim Murphy obtained both a bachelor of science degree in wood science and production management and an associate’s degree in natural resources. He received his degrees from the University of Minnesota, one of a number of colleges in the United States that offer degrees in wood science, wood technology, forestry, or forest products. Courses of study in these programs may include wood physics, wood chemistry, wood-fluid relationships, wood machinery, and production management. Degree programs in chemistry, biology, physics, mechanical engineering, materials science, or civil engineering can also be very useful if combined with courses in wood science.
A master’s degree or doctorate is usually required for more advanced work as a researcher. Advanced studies include such topics as pulp and paper science, business administration, production management, and forestry-wood sciences. Murphy says that the majority of the researchers in his department have master’s degrees. “Advanced education is common in the research end of the business,” he says.
Apprenticeships used to be the most common method of training for wood products technicians, but today most earn a certificate or associate’s degree from a two-year college. Their course work in wood science includes the identification, composition, and uses of wood. It also covers wood design, manufacturing, seasoning and machining, and methods and materials for making wood products. Some business courses may also be included. Some students may wish to earn a two-year degree first and then transfer to another school to earn a bachelor’s degree. “It’s possible to get a job as a lab technician with an associate’s degree,” Murphy says, “but the career path for those people is really pretty limited.”
The main personal requirement for success in this field is the ability to communicate well. “You really have to be able to communicate quickly and effectively, both with your mouth and on paper,” Tim Murphy says. “You also need to have an enjoyment of the sciences and the desire to be in business.”
The ability to understand and use scientific theory is important in this career, as are curiosity and persistence in your work habits. Finally, an interest in wood and conservation issues is a plus. Workers in this industry should be environmentally aware, as their industry is contingent on the preservation and proper use of wood as a renewable resource.
Wood Science and Technology Workers Career Path
High school guidance counselors should be able to provide you with literature and information on careers in this field. If you live near a college that offers a wood science and technology degree, or near a logging industry or manufacturer of wood products, you may be able to talk with students, professors, or employees who can explain the field more fully. It may even be possible to find a part-time or summer job in the wood industry. Finally, any experience in working with wood and wood products will provide you with valuable insight and education. If there are woodworking classes offered in your high school or community, you might consider taking them. By working with wood, you can begin to understand the differences in wood types and how they respond to various kinds of woodworking procedures.
Most wood scientists and technologists are employed in private industry. Firms dealing with forest products, such as mills, manufacturers of wood products, suppliers to the wood products industry, forest products associations, and paper and pulp companies all hire these kinds of workers. Independent contract research firms, like Tim Murphy’s company, may also be sources of employment. Universities and federal and state agencies, such as the Extension Service, hire wood science and technology experts to work on various research projects.
Geographically, careers in wood science and technology tend to be situated near large wood-producing forests and mills. Most wood science technologists work along the Eastern Seaboard, in the North Central States, in the Pacific Northwest, and in the southern states from Virginia to eastern Texas.
Tim Murphy feels that wood science and technology jobs are not hard for qualified applicants to come by. “I was at the University of Minnesota, and a company contacted me and hired me right out of the university,” he says. “The companies really recruited us heavily.”
This is not uncommon. Many forestry firms recruit new employees during visits to campus, and new graduates of wood science and technology programs often learn about employment opportunities through their colleges’ career placement offices. Other sources of information are professional groups, which may maintain job referral or resume services, and trade magazines, which often carry want ads for job openings. Information on jobs with the federal government can be obtained from the Office of Personnel Management.
Moving ahead in the wood science field depends on ingenuity, skills, and the ability to handle important projects. There is no typical career path, and advancement can come in the form of promotions, pay raises, or more important assignments. People with management skills may rise to become sales managers, division chiefs, or directors, although the size of the company often dictates the opportunities for advancement. Larger companies obviously offer more places within the organization, so advancement may be quicker than in a smaller company.
An advanced degree, such as a master’s or a Ph.D., can be the ticket to advancement for those working in research; workers in this field may be granted permission to conduct independent research or be promoted to heads of research operations. Wood science and technology employees in the business area of the industry may find that additional schooling makes them better candidates for higher administrative positions. Wood products technicians may find that earning a bachelor’s degree can help them move up to the position of wood technologist.
Salary levels in the wood sciences depend on the individual’s employer, experience, level of education, and work performed. According to the department of wood and paper science at the University of Minnesota, average starting salaries for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in wood science are $50,000 to $55,000. Those with M.B.A.’s can earn $74,000 or more, and very experienced professionals in the wood science field can make well over $100,000 a year.
Workers in the private sector earn slightly higher starting salaries. Wages for beginning wood products technicians are somewhat less, with average salaries in the range of $34,000 to $37,000 dollars.
Usually wood scientists, wood technologists, and wood products technicians receive fringe benefits, including health insurance, pension plans, and paid vacations.
Depending on the type of work they perform, wood science specialists operate in a variety of settings, from the office to the open forest. Wood scientists and researchers work in laboratories and, if they are on university faculty, in classrooms. Their experimental work may take them to tree farms and forests. Wood technologists and technicians may work in offices, manufacturing plants, sawmills, or research facilities. Those technologists who are involved in sales often need to travel.
Work may be solitary or as part of a team, depending on the position and the project. And workers in the lab may use a wide variety of equipment—anything from a table saw to a word processing program to a chemical analytical device, according to Tim Murphy.
These types of employees work a normal 40-hour week, but extra hours may be required in certain situations. Technologists who supervise technicians and other production workers may have to work second and third shifts. Administrators may also have to put in extra hours. Workers paid by the hour often get overtime pay, but salaried employees do not get extra monetary compensation for their extra hours.
Wood science and technology specialists have a difficult but rewarding job: applying scientific principles such as chemistry, physics, and mathematics to a commonplace raw material and finding new ways for society to use wood in more productive, efficient ways. Many who work in this field enjoy the challenge it presents and feel fulfilled by helping to better understand and more efficiently utilize one of the earth’s most necessary resources.
Wood Science and Technology Workers Career Outlook
Wood technology is a relatively new science, with breakthroughs in products and technology occurring frequently. It is also a field in which the supply of qualified wood scientists and technologists is short of the demand. Therefore, the employment outlook for these workers in this field is expected to be very good. There is a national average of three job offers for every new wood science graduate.
The demand for wood products is increasing rapidly. At the same time, the costs of growing and harvesting timber and processing wood products are rising rapidly. Wood manufacturers need the skills of wood science specialists to keep their operations profitable and efficient and to help them compete with plastics manufacturers and the makers of other wood substitutes. “There’s a lot of activity in this field right now because of the shortage of wood products,” Tim Murphy says. “Companies are spending more money on product development in this area.”
Conservation programs will affect the industry both positively and negatively. Pressure to reduce lumber harvests will continue to increase, particularly in threatened areas, such as the rainforest. Those pressures, however, will force increased study of ways to better utilize wood currently being harvested. “The main thrust of the industry right now is to use everything the tree has to offer,” Murphy says. “What we’re trying to do is to optimize utilization of wood.”
Although the employment outlook for wood science and technology workers is expected to be strong, it is heavily tied to the overall economy. Because the bulk of all forest products is used in the construction industry, a downturn in new construction means a downturn in all forest-related careers. “Our industry is tightly linked to the housing index,” Murphy says. “When those start to go down, you get nervous about your job. It can be a roller coaster ride with the economy.”
For More Information:
- Forest Products Society
- National Hardwood Lumber Association
- Society of American Foresters
- Society of Wood Science and Technology
- Canadian Wood Council