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The Graying of the Paper Industry

JOHN A. NEUN, P.E.

This article appears in the May/June issue of Paper360°, the TAPPI member magazine, and is offered here for Ahead of the Curve readers who may have missed it.

The first time I ever darkened the door of a paper mill was in 1979. I was a research engineer working for a large clothing company, and I was sent to a local paper mill (now closed, like so many in the Northeast US) to get a physical sense of those abstractions called “paper machines.” I remember the mill was using a Vickery shoe and a bronze wire—and that was the only time I ever saw either of those things in operation.

At the time of that first paper mill visit, my Baby Boomer generation comprised about 66 percent of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2015, that figure was 29 percent and shrinking fast as, like me, my fellow Baby Boomers retired.

In 1979 the average age of TAPPI members was 43. In 1990 it was 44. Now it’s 53. (The overall average is almost identical to the US average). While TAPPI membership may not precisely represent the industry as a whole, I feel the trends can’t be that different. It’s clear that the industry got older as I did, a trend that picked up speed after the early 1990s.

Actually, we may be finally seeing an improvement in this trend—at least for TAPPI members. While the average age of members was 53 in 2017, in 2007 the average age was 55. In the last ten years, the average age has dropped by two years.

The transition of generations hasn’t been the only important change for the paper industry. When I visited that first mill in 1979, there were about 1200 pulp and paper mills in the US. Today, there are about 500. US capacity for paper and paperboard in 1979 was about 61,000,000 metric tpy; by 1990 that number had grown to about 77,000,000. Surprisingly, in 2016 it was still about 79,000,000, according to “Pulp and Paper Capacities” from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. Pulp capacities in those time frames went from 46,000,000 metric tpy in 1979 to 58,000,000 in 1990 and 54,000,000 in 2016.

Technology and labor in pulp, paper, paperboard, and selected converting facilities, 1973-1992. (Source: Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics)

In 1979, according to the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 264,000 people working in the US pulp and paper industry. By 1993, this number had shrunk about 12 percent, to approximately 236,000. Then the decline accelerated—by 2015, there were 102,000 people in the US pulp and paper industry, using Department of Labor definitions. Over the last 25 years or so, even though the number of people making paper (according to the DoL) has shrunk by more than 50 percent, those people are producing about the same total amount of paper and paperboard.

So, we’ve gotten older and more efficient. As communication technologies have evolved and our consumption and shopping habits have changed, the mix of paper and paperboard grades has changed. Printing and writing grades are far less prolific than they were in 1979 and packaging grades are in ascendency. While some people making them may disagree, packaging grades are more straightforward to produce than many communication grades of paper.

If over the last generation more than half of the mills in the US have closed, and new technology and efficiency gains mean fewer people are needed for the production facilities still in operation, attrition of the workforce has been inevitable. This attrition has impacted all employees across all skills and pay grades. Almost universally when attrition occurs, seniority is the predominant selection factor. When the workforce is reduced, younger employees go first. Consequently, average age increases. After a generation of such evolution, a dearth of young employees exists, as anecdotally shown by the average age of TAPPI members. There is a generational bubble which, when it bursts, can cause a crisis in skills and manpower.

How does an industry operated by an aged workforce beginning to retire en masse ensure a fully-manned future? The answer lies with training and education.

Transferring Knowledge
The traditional career path in our industry is bottom up. There’s much to be said for an evolution of knowledge through doing. Couch Pit University—an industry organization for which the main entry qualification is having run a paper machine—is a great example of some of the advantages of “hands-on” learning. Many CPU members started out as fourth hands on paper machines and worked their way up to superintendent positions and beyond. Anyone who has been to a CPU meeting cannot help but be impressed by two things: the members’ depth of knowledge of papermaking, and the organizational culture. There is a strong sense of camaraderie, of knowledge sharing, and of mutual support.

I am not part of CPU; my career path was different. Yet I think that CPU culture comes from a shared sense of having endured and triumphed over difficult circumstances with hard work, stamina, dedication, and cooperation. This culture has served our industry well for decades, in no small part because papermaking technologies are evolved and not merely developed. Good papermaking is thus a mix of technology and “black magic”—that is, knowledge of a very complex system gained by experience and observation; knowledge handed down through generations of workers.

I asked Randy Kimpfbeck, a past machine superintendent and CPU officer, about this generational knowledge. “Couch Pit University was founded to perpetuate the art of papermaking,” Kimpfbeck told me. “Membership is a reminder of the struggle to ‘crawl out of the couch pit.’ Our primary role is giving back knowledge to the industry and its young people. We do this with scholarships and mentoring.”

Does a generational “bubble” preclude the survival of such a culture? I hope not. The existence of Couch Pit University perhaps indicates that we recognize its value and will work to protect and nurture it.

Still, management can no longer rely solely on the traditional “pass it forward” culture—not only because of generational changes, but because an important reason for increased productivity is elevated technological sophistication. A back tender thumping the reel with a baton and listening for profile changes might be picturesque, but it is not practical on a modern machine. The person (or more likely, people) responsible for profile need be conversant in distributed control systems and the sensors that feed them. Hence, the importance of training.

Dr. Mike Kocurek, the pre-eminent paper technology educator in the US, has recognized the pressure that management in the pulp and paper industry is under to hire and develop skilled employees. In addition to his university experience, he has done a wide range of in-plant technical training for thousands of operators in hundreds of mills. He has also helped develop a range of “portable” training modules designed to bring new employees up to speed more quickly, and to fill in knowledge gaps for experienced employees.

According to Dr. Kocurek, “successful employee training has three legs: on-the-job experience; training on equipment design, operation, and maintenance; and technical training that focuses on what happens in pulping and papermaking and why it happens.”

The many modular training programs developed at Coastal Alabama Community College under a National Science Foundation grant are great examples of modern technical training. Their modular form allows customization to different levels of understanding and different job functions. Some paper companies have developed similar approaches to personnel training in-house.

I spoke with a source in management at a US paper company who describes how they are coping with that company’s retirement rush. The company has created an extensive repertoire of training modules. The modules can include books, interactive computer exercises, and field work. The development of this material represents a substantial effort, using resources from the entire organization. A custom training program is designed for each employee by selecting appropriate modules. New employees like engineers with extensive theoretical knowledge can have their practical skills honed, while hands-on employees can develop their “how and why” technical skills, much as Dr. Kocurek described.

TAPPI Press Manager Jana Jensen has corroborating insights. She told me that TAPPI has recognized the “retirement tsunami” and the consequent challenges. “TAPPI Academy encompasses face-to-face education mixed with on-line, self-paced learning. There are currently more than 40 TAPPI eLearning courses, and we have plans to expand the program to encompass a broad spectrum of papermaking technologies,” says Jensen.

The paper industry has existed for hundreds of years and has undergone many evolutions, both technical and organizational. There is a huge evolution going on right now as the industry responds to radically shifting market demands and a generational turnover in its workforce. This turnover is more traumatic than normal because of the “retirement bubble” that exists from industry constriction forces. Even though those of us of a certain age know that we are irreplaceable and the industry is in dire straits without us, somehow it seems that the wheels are turning to efficiently replace us. For that we can all be thankful.

(Note: The author thanks Marlene Harris in the TAPPI Headquarters Library for her help researching this article.)

John Neun is principal of John A. Neun, LLC, a TAPPI Fellow, and past chairman of TAPPI’s Paper & Board Division and Water Removal Committee. His industry career includes 38 years in research management and technical support roles at Albany International and Kadant, and he holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at john.neun@gmail.com.

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