The pulp and paper technical workforce is aging out

Miami University is helping to alleviate the shortage!

A Paperitalo Publications Special Report
Thursday, June 23, 2016 4:45 pm.

Group of students in protective gear outside of wattens papermillA group of Miami University students visiting a papermill.
Photo by Dr. Steven Keller.

The US pulp and industry has a problem. A big problem. Over half of the technical workforce will be old enough to retire in the next 10 years. A recent US News and World Report article on the aging of the American workforce stated that, according to the US Census Bureau, about 10,000 baby boomers in the United States will turn 65 every day until about the year 2030. The report goes on to say that in some years, the daily average will exceed 13,000.

This so-called "silver tsunami" does not bode well for the pulp and paper industry. Since the 2008 economic crash, mills have been laying off employees of all types and allowing their technical ranks to thin through attrition (not hiring replacements when people leave or retire). That means that there is going to be a severe shortfall of much needed technical talent in the very near future.

Paper producing facilities have leaned on their suppliers for much of their technical talent in an effort to keep their payrolls in check, but the supplier community is facing the same problem as the mills: there simply is a short supply of available talent. And to make matters worse, the entire industry has not made itself attractive to potential engineers and we've been losing out to the oil and gas business as well as the chemical processing industry. Not to mention the cyber world jobs and health care businesses that have been hiring engineers at a rapid pace. Trying to meet all the demand has placed a lot of stress on the limited resources of the country's engineering schools.

It is the mission of every paper school to graduate as many high-ability engineers as they can given the capacity of their available teaching hours. Most programs have experienced record enrollment which has increased class size, but there is now a shortage of teaching hours available and there are few PhD students who are going into the paper discipline. Universities are having a hard time finding qualified faculty to teach the courses and meet the demand of the greater number of students. It's a bottleneck that needs to be solved.

The nine schools that currently serve the needs of the paper industry in the US are: Auburn University, Miami University, North Carolina State University, State University of New York - College of Environmental Science and Forestry, University of Maine, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and Western Michigan University. According to the Pulp and Paper Education and Research Alliance, these schools average about 80 students each (2014 data) with an average faculty of five full-time and one part time position actually in the teaching the paper program.

Class of 2016 students walking into graduation in red robes.

The good news is that the numbers are growing and the industry is finding students who are better prepared to work in the mill environment because most paper engineering students have at least one summer internship or co-op experience in production environments. They like what they see and they stay at the mill when they're hired. (Unlike engineering graduates from non-paper programs who may find the mill environment a bit too loud, hot, wet or difficult for them.)

Why would a talented engineering student choose to study for a career in the pulp and paper industry? With all the other industries that are so attractive to chemical engineering students, we are competing for the top students by offering challenging careers, but what else can we do? We've all read about rising college tuition costs, so perhaps that creates an opportunity for hiring managers. Instead of paying a higher base salary, why not offer to make the payments on their student loans? Or, if you're really savvy, why not offer to help pay for their education while they're still in school, provided that they come to work for you over the summers or for multiple term co-op positions?

Most paper schools have active foundations whose purpose is to attract students to the industry. One of the tools they use is scholarships, which are paid from their endowment funds. But with the increase in the student population that are earning merit-based scholarships from their foundations, there is a huge increase in the financial pressure.

So what can be done to help relieve the pressure? Mills and suppliers can work more closely with the foundations at each of the paper schools to increase annual funding, grow endowments (which assure future students will have scholarship money) and enter into engagements with the classes and student groups. Companies who are successful attracting new engineers are the ones who invest in outstanding summer intern and co-op work experiences. If summer interns are given meaningful work projects and allowed to give summary presentations to the senior management at the end of their assignment, then the students return to school with a great deal of excitement both for the company and for the industry. They cannot wait to get back to work the next summer and do more exciting things that really bring value.

Without a solid internship/co-op program, companies will suffer from a lack of good candidates when they want to hire permanent employees. With such a shortage of suitable engineering students, it is imperative that employers work hard to build a marketing buzz among the students at their target schools. This can be accomplished by underwriting student TAPPI chapter activities, presenting a topic in a class, or by contributing a senior design project idea or materials. The most important aspect is to connect with the students by providing them real-world challenges and problems that need to be solved. The students are up to the challenge and they're looking for the reward that comes from making an impact.

There is an answer to the technical talent shortage that paper producers and paper industry suppliers alike are facing, and that is to invest in the foundations that bring entry level engineering talent into the industry. Given proper funding, the foundation leadership can be charged with the task of finding high ability students to fill the roles that are being vacated by retiring engineers, preparing them for success in our industry and thus positioning our entire business for sustainable growth.