Research & Innovation
Building a strong workforce: one employee at a time
By Pulp & Paper Canada
As the pulp and paper sector struggles to redefine itself in the face of massive cuts to its operations and personnel, some companies have completely wiped out their professional development and train...
By Pulp & Paper Canada
As the pulp and paper sector struggles to redefine itself in the face of massive cuts to its operations and personnel, some companies have completely wiped out their professional development and training programs. One need only look at the decimated Pulp and Paper Masters programs at McGill University and the University of British Columbia to substantial this trend. Both these universities no longer offer courses-based programs.
“The ‘investment’ over the years by the Canadian pulp and paper industry has declined in almost every aspect of professional development,” notes HumEng International instructor Martin Macleod, formerly of Paprican-FPInnovations. “There are fewer courses, fewer students, a lack of corporate commitment, well-below capital, materials and equipment.”
Unfortunately, downsizing and scaling back is the current pulp and paper industry trend -a trend that started a decade ago, says McLeod.
“Our downward slope is getting steeper, and more slippery. Only a serious change in leadership and commitment at positions of power and influence will change this unfortunate trajectory,” he says.
HumEng International Inc. specializes in the development and implementation of skills management and training systems for the pulp and paper industry. President Ronald LaBrie points to the increased importance of investing in professional development and training at a time when the rest of the industry is downsizing. “Downsizing is taking away all of the experience we gained through trial and error. It takes a lot of time to train new people, and it’s expensive.”
Some forward-thinking companies, such as Metso Corporation and Albany International, remain committed to professional development and training for employees, however HumEng is committed to accommodating this need for increased investment in professional development. Founded in 1991, the company provides more e-learning content and training than any other company in Canada. Through a bottom-up approach, HumEng looks at the base of its pyramid – what LaBrie refers to as “the incumbent technical worker.
“We were fully convinced in 1991, and now even more so, that the relative importance of fewer and fewer people in the industry increases the relative worth of those than remain within it,” he explains.
It is with this conviction that HumEng undertakes regular, comprehensive job analyses of workers, to then work with its partners in the pulp and paper industry to develop extensive, pertinent and state-of-the art training modules which are available to workers 24/7. “We looked at ways to make sure the information is relevant, and to make sure it is employee-targeted.” HumEng approaches content creation ‘so people understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” stresses LaBrie. “What do they need to know to troubleshoot and solve problems?”
While companies such as HumEng are keen to provide professional development material and content, there are barriers to its reception and use. The biggest LaBrie has encountered is fear. A reluctance to tread new territory can, initially, prevent some individuals from embracing the programs head-on. To tackle this problem, HumEng structures its programs to allow for individualized learning. However, as fear of failure gives way to encouragement and self-actualization, employees complete their modules feeling positive, confident and encouraged, notes LaBrie.
“I spend lot of time in the mill and I see what happens when people learn. I see what happens when people know,” LaBrie said of the numerous instances when employees have completed a training module and communicated their newfound confidence to tackle aspects of their jobs they were previously uncertain about.
Categories of employees
When it comes to undertaking professional development and training, Macleod highlights the importance of distinguishing between three, broadly-classified groups of employees. “There are engineers by training, operators, and the seldom-addressed non-technical professionals involved in human resources, accounting, etc.”
Throughout his 30-year career, Macleod has encountered all three groups, both as a student in technical courses, and as a teacher delivering courses to engineers and operators in the pulp and paper industry. “In my experience, students usually respond enthusiastically to ‘live teaching’ when the teachers are knowledgeable, experienced, unbiased, informal and friendly. Team teaching can also be very effective. Humour can be helpful.
“To reach and engage adult learners, the use of a variety of teaching techniques is important,” he adds.
Macleod also recognizes the crucial role e-learning plays in the industry. It is efficient and provides a sense of autonomy to participants, he points out. In addition to HumEng, companies such as Al-Pac and Tolko, are exemplary leaders in professional development, offering employees the opportunity to define their own needs, on an individual basis. “These companies have built into their structure an attitude of seeking out opportunities and deciding for themselves what’s appropriate. You don’t have to be a big company with a big budget to do this,” he stresses. What is necessary, however, is an industry-wide acknowledgement of the possibilities that exist, and then tapping into and making use of them. “We should get serious,” Macleod says. “Why wouldn’t we?”
FPInnovations-Paprican has been serious about professional development and training for many years, and has strived to adapt to the continuing changes of the pulp and paper industry. The most visible contribution the organization makes to professional development in the sector comes in the form of four short courses: Papricourse, Pulp Tech, Papriprint and Papichem.
“Two of the courses are surveys of the pulp and paper industry from the forest to the final product,” notes FPInnovations-Paprican’s John Schmidt, principal scientist, mechani- cal pulping. Papricourse is designed for those with an undergraduate scientific or engineering background or equivalent experience, while Pulp Tech is aimed at sales, marketing and administrative staff with a non-technical background,” he says. “We also offer two courses specializing in wet-end chemistry, (Paprichem) and printing technology (Papriprint). Each of these courses was developed in response to the needs of our member companies.”
FPInnovations-Paprican relies on face-to-face teaching methods in some of its courses in order to engage participants. Students benefit through direct interaction with researchers who are currently active in each of the topics being addressed, and are subsequently exposed to an unbiased and in-depth examination of the latest technological developments. Students have the opportunity to learn through traditional, lecture-based methods, in addition to demonstrations provided at the research institute’s laboratories and pilot plants. Learning is further supplemented by visits to pulp, paper and printing operations. However, Schmidt notes the importance of the face-to-face contact students are able to obtain with researchers. “Many participants, even those from our member companies, are at first unaware of the depth and breath of knowledge of our researchers and the sophistication of our facilities,” stresses Schmidt. “It is our goal that, in addition to the knowledge that they obtain from a course, participants will return home knowing that these resources are a phone call or an e-mail away when they need help with technical problems.”
FPInnovations-Paprican has also made forays into web-based learning, and takes on undergraduate and coop students every summer, something Schmidt refers to as, “An early form of professional development.”
These innovative approaches have not rendered the organization immune to the hurdles the rest of the sector is experiencing, however. The challenging conditions that have characterized the pulp and paper industry over the last decade have exe
rted a negative influence on enrollments in professional development activities. However, this further illustrates the point that downsizing has in fact made it even more critical that those remaining within the industry are adequately and continuously trained for their additional responsibilities.
“Even when whole tasks have been outsourced to suppliers who work in the mill, it’s important for mill staff to have knowledge in these areas to critically evaluate what is being done and whether objectives are being met,” says Schmidt. “Investing in professional development is also necessary if the industry is serious about attracting and retaining talented technical staff.”
While it remains an uncontested fact that many companies in the pulp and paper sector are not currently investing in professional development activities in order to attract, stimulate and retain employees, leaders such as HumEng International set a strong example to follow. The enthusiasm of people like Ron LaBrie is simultaneously infectious and encouraging. “We need to look at new ways of doing things, of being more efficient,” he stresses. “But we don’t pin our hopes, we pin our effort on the industry surviving.”
” Investing in professional development is also necessary if the industry is serious about attracting and retaining talented technical staff.”
John Schmidt – FPInnovations-Parican
“We were fully convinced in 1991, and now even more so, that the relative importance of fewer and fewer people in the industry increases the relative worth of those than remain within it.”
Ronald LaBrie -HumEng International