Paper goes electronic

Local pulp and paper industry gets a technological shot in the arm

Ralph Benefiel
is the director of the Western Region for the National Center for Pulp and Paper Technology located at Lower Columbia College.

The pulp and paper industry remains a key economic driver for our region. The industry employs nearly 19,000 Washington and Oregon residents. The median wage for production workers with 10 years experience in the industry is $24.34 per hour. In addition to a competitive family wage, the industry offers employees excellent health care and retirement benefits. Moreover, the pulp and paper industry generates the second-highest employment multiplier of all manufacturing sector jobs in Washington State. Each pulp and paper job supports creation of 4.7 additional jobs in the state.

Globally, the industry produces more than 300 million tons of paper-based products annually with an estimated value of $500 billion. One third of these products are produced in the United States. As an employer, the pulp and paper industry ranks among the top ten in 43 of 50 states. In 2004, the industry employed nearly 500,000 workers nationwide.

However, the industry faces fierce global competition. The pulp and paper industry is operating in a new economy – new technology systems, a global marketplace, new organization of business and changes in the workforce. This new global marketplace has two business models against which the U.S. industry is competing. The first model is the Scandinavian/European model. The pulp and paper industry in Scandinavian and European countries offer their employees high wages and good benefits, use state-of-the-art technology and hire workers with a high level of skill and education. The second business model is prevalent in Asian and South American countries. These companies offer their employees significantly lower wages and little or no benefits, are continually upgrading their technology and employ workers with increasingly high levels of skill and education.

Although the industry has been hard-hit by global competition, industry consolidation and the continued application of new technologies have helped stabilize the industry. The American Forest and Paper Association mounted a strategic initiative that focuses on the key elements that can help move the industry to a more technologically advanced and more globally competitive position. This initiative identified the need for better trained, technically skilled employees and investment in technology as critical to staying competitive in today’s global economy.

The National Science Foundation has provided a $5 million grant to establish a national network for pulp and paper technology training, known as (npt)2. Improvements in technology require a “systems thinker” approach to many operator and technician jobs. The goal of the grant is to provide this knowledge-based training to current and future technicians and operators in the industry.

As a recipient of a sub-award for this project, Lower Columbia College is responsible for establishing a new degree program and facilitating partnerships between industry and other colleges interested in implementing a similar program. The two-year degree program debuted at LCC this fall with 13 students. Currently, these students are setting the foundation for the Associate in Applied Science degree in Pulp and Paper Technology, taking courses such as English, algebra, chemistry, public speaking, process control and electrical fundamentals. Specialized technical classes start next fall in the new computer simulation lab currently under construction. The University of Washington has partnered with LCC to develop a state-of-the-art paper machine simulation software to be used in the new lab facility.

LCC is currently exploring the development of similar programs with colleges in Washington and Oregon. As a part of the (npt)2, colleges and industry have access to state-of-the art curriculum, training materials, and training models. The network also provides access to industry specialists and expertise, some of which was recently utilized by Georgia Pacific’s Camas mill. With help from the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, (npt)2 staff helped facilitate the expansion of in-house training programs. Southwest Washington employers will benefit by having access to training and graduates that have skills in demand by many industries, including wood products, chemical and refining and food processing.

A recent survey indicates the industry in the Pacific Northwest expects 1,350 retirements in the next five years.

Employers plan to replace 1,050 of these positions. This exodus of experienced workers coupled with the general lack of interest among young people in manufacturing jobs poses significant challenges for the industry. LCC’s Pulp and Paper Technology Program is in a strategic position to help the regional pulp and paper industry remain globally competitive by offering industry specific education and increasing public awareness about opportunities in the field.