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Cover Story: Training & Education

An alarm sounds on the panel in front of Shawn Lindballe and his heart skips a couple of beats. His brow furrows and he examines the monitors and gauges before him on the power board. He's a chemical ...

October 1, 2002  By Pulp & Paper Canada

An alarm sounds on the panel in front of Shawn Lindballe and his heart skips a couple of beats. His brow furrows and he examines the monitors and gauges before him on the power board. He’s a chemical recovery and utilities operating technician employed by Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., a kraft pulp producer located about a two-hour drive north of Edmonton.

Lindballe is in training. He’s been in training, for one job or another, since he started at Al-Pac in March 1993. That’s not unusual. Not for Al-Pac employees. It’s expected.

Lindballe spent the first five years at Al-Pac in the technical department. He worked first in the lab, and just like all the people employed in that department, moved to a new position every six to nine months. The goal was to have everyone in the department trained to do any of the job there, increasing the crew’s flexibility, decreasing the number of employees needed in the department, and bolstering employee enthusiasm for the work.


The opportunity to learn a wide variety of skills in a relatively short time was what brought Lindballe from a traditional mill to Al-Pac, he said.

“That was the big, big draw. I wasn’t unhappy where I was. It was just the thought of spending X number of years in a particular position until someone was to move on or retire so you could succeed on. I just felt that I wanted to move a little faster than that, so I tried Al-Pac and it’s been very, very good in that way.”

Almost five years ago, a position came open in the powerhouse and Lindballe took advantage of a company program that allowed him to move from one part of the organization to another without losing pay. He began training for his new career as a power engineer.

Al-Pac provided all of the training that he needed, including courses, study time, days off when he needed to write his government exams, and they gave him a place to develop his new skills.

“I’ve been in the powerhouse now four-and-a-half years and I’ve progressed through five of the seven areas. And I’ve obtained up to a third-class power engineering ticket, or steam ticket,” said Lindballe.

To understand Al-Pac’s commitment to learning while earning, we have to go back to start-up in 1993. When Al-Pac began hiring, it looked to the local farm community for its workforce. That meant hiring people without pulp industry experience. It meant training about 70% of its workforce from the ground up.

Fortunately, the population from which Al-Pac was hiring had some special qualities, including a high mechanical aptitude, cultivated by years of agricultural work.

The 30% of the Al-Pac workforce that came from other mills worked with consultants to formalize training manuals, and Al-Pac computerized programs that would allow training on-site and track the skills learned. And with each newly mastered skill set came an increase in salary for the employee.

Delia Wangler was a secretary for the government before signing on with Al-Pac at start-up. She’s an operating technician alternating between the dry and wet end of the pulp machine.

“I started out working in the lab, in the dry end, and each area is like a progression, and so as the years go on the expectation is that you will progress to the higher level of running the machines.” That’s where she is now.

“We have six actual operating levels, and we have two extra levels, which is taking on more responsibility within the department or the business unit. I’m in charge of handing out permits, ensuring that the men are safe where they are working. So that’s like the next level up. You have to know the area before you can actually do this type of job.”

Al-Pac is described as a flat organization, meaning there’s not a lot of middle management, per se. Each employee is assigned to a team, and the supervisory or managerial functions are integrated into the daily functions of the teams.

“We’re a unique organization in that from the inception of the organization it was to be a team-based environment,” said Rob Bosscha, the man responsible for training at Al-Pac. “So the teams are responsible for the day-to-day operations, is really what it comes down to. They have responsibility for production, quality, safety, personnel–they are recruiting–and their performance.”

Each member of a team takes on a portfolio–safety, for example. The person responsible would monitor the team’s activities in this area and work with team members to improve performance.

Wangler shares the training portfolio on her team. She routinely checks the computer tracking system to ensure her team members have completed mandatory training, and to ensure each member knows when it’s time to start on their next progression in the department.

“I’ll go through the portfolio and I’ll recommend to the individual, “Look, you’ve got a tech progression coming up, maybe you should start getting your sign offs done,’ or ‘this is your next area, you should start focusing on working in that area for the next year to come,'” she said.

Al-Pac supports individual training to an average of about $3,200 per person per year.

“In the long run, if we are going to be very good at what we do and be competitive with the southern hemisphere, we have to be very, very efficient and effective in everything we do,” said Al-Pac President Bill Hunter. “And I think we realized quite early in our vision of what this culture was going to look like that we were going to have to empower our people and we had to give them training and skills that maybe aren’t seen in the traditional pulp environment.”

With that in mind, Al-Pac developed a number of programs that will keep the flexibility in its workforce for years to come.

The Industrial Maintenance Multi-Skilling Program allows maintenance and operational personnel to learn the core skills of six different trades–millwrighting, machining, welding, pipefitting, electrical and instrumentation– and become qualified to do a variety of jobs at Al-Pac.

“We’ve said, in an industrial setting there are some key skills that you need to learn, and following the Alberta apprenticeship curriculum, pulled out skills from each of those areas, and then put them into one program that we are offering here on-site,” said Bosscha. There are 25 individuals currently taking part in the training, delivered through the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, and if any of the participants is interested in pursuing a ticket in any one of the trades, the training in the multi-skilling program counts for credit towards that.

“We’re quite proud of that actually, because that’s a first,” said Bosscha.

“Also a first is the millwright apprenticeship program, where we actually have the individuals on-site going through their four-year millwright apprenticeship, and we have Al-Pac employees, as well as community members, as well as Aboriginals, that are in that program,” he said.

Though not everyone enrolled in the program will end up working at Al-Pac, the apprenticeship gives participants a place to learn without leaving home to get the training.

This year, a total of 16 people will have completed the program to become journeyman millwrights.

Al-Pac is a continuous improvement environment. That means the organization is constantly “evergreening” its training systems, said Hunter.

“So every time we find a best practice that works, or technology that’s been implemented at different facilities throughout the world, more in western Canada, we massage some of our policies, protocols, and procedures, and we upgrade that.” If Al-Pac finds new training courses that enhance or optimize employee skills, it provides them.

“I don’t think there are very many folks here that aren’t learning something formally, and then being recognized for it,” he said.

Al-Pac’s training is designed to develop critical minds and an analytical approach to the operation. It encourages creativity and innovation, and it’s celebrated and recognized with a monetary value placed on an employee’s efforts to increase his capabilities.

“Everything we put in up front is going to pay off in the long term,” said
Hunter. “So if we give them the skills and abilities now, they’re the ones that are going to come up with the ingenuity that’s going to save the dollars going forward.

“They are the ones that come up with the ideas, because they have more knowledge, and more skills, and more awareness of what the business is all about. So that pays off. One idea could be worth a million dollars, and if I invested $10,000 of training in that one person, it’s paid itself off, substantially. And that’s what we are banking on.”

One idea that’s paid off in a big way came from a group of employees who worked out a process for using bark and other waste wood products to generate power to run the mill, and even have some left over to sell back to the grid. It’s not only saved the company millions, it’s now generating a new area of profit.

Al-Pac looks to like-minded organizations with which to partner to achieve compatible goals. A recent example of this is its business agreement with Portage College, located in Lac La Biche, a 45-minute drive from the mill. It started with a golf game where Al-Pac’s Bill Hunter and the college’s president Bill Persley got to talking about Canada’s dwindling labor pool, and the potential of the substantial aboriginal population located in and around Al-Pac’s Forest Management Area, a population that made up 70 per cent of the Portage student body. The more the two Bills talked, the more areas they found the two organizations could work together to benefit the community and their own employees.

The result was a formal Memorandum of Understanding that clearly outlines the expectations of Al-Pac and Portage in a number of areas that include the implementation of co-operative programs and work placements, professional development, such as employee exchanges, resource sharing, like classroom space or computer equipment, and the development of specific program-related training.

The MOU was developed further into a business plan and put into practice. Though it’s only been one year since the signing, the seed has begun to bear fruit.

When its power engineering instructor took a two-year leave of absence to teach oversea, Portage College looked to Al-Pac to fill the gap.

“They approached us and said ‘do you have somebody that might be interested in this. And lo and behold we did,” said Bosscha. The Al-Pac employee was seconded to Portage and has completed his first year as an instructor.

Though it’s taken the person out of the Al-Pac environment, the experience will help him develop his instructional skills, so when he comes back to the organization, Al-Pac will be able to use him internally to help develop other people.

A similar opportunity was provided an Al-Pac water treatment specialist. Portage was approached by the local Metis settlements to provide water and waste management training to eight community members. Portage co-ordinated the program and Al-Pac provided some of the expertise.

“We’ve developed a good relationship with the college in the process of doing that and it’s all a win/win. The individual that was involved with it had a great time. He just loved it,” Bosscha said.

As for plans to increase Al-Pac’s aboriginal workforce, a new program called the Aboriginal Workforce Capacity Expansion Program is about to be launched. It will put 18 aboriginal people through a 34-week program that will be made up of life skills training, academic upgrading, work skills training and then a job placement, said Portage’s Bill Persley.

“It’s going to be a major project that both of us will undertake, where Al-Pac will not only contribute time and resources, but cash, and we would commit our resources, as well as our staff to pull this together,” he said. “We believe we are going to be the leaders out there, where you have an industry that’s involved with a training institution and government in supporting it as well, and we think there’s going to be a lot of potential in this as being a really great model that all of Canada can use.”

Persley said the program just makes sense. That sums up the Al-Pac approach to training. It makes sense to Bill Hunter to do everything in his power to keep his employees challenged, keep them enthusiastic and provide an environment where they want to stay and work.

Shawn Lindballe knows that with the power engineering ticket he’s achieved, he could go to any of the many resource sector industries operating in northeastern Alberta, but he doesn’t see the need.

“I see Al-Pac as a place where I can get six different types of jobs if I wanted. I’ve worked in the lab, over five years there, worked in the powerhouse four-and-a-half years. I could work in the powerhouse another half-year and go to the wood room or down to the machine room or possibly different types of special projects,” he explained.

“So I think if you do get into a rut, and you’re having a little trouble crawling out, keeping those kinds of things in your mind, there is opportunity out there. You just kind of have to look for it and you don’t need to look outside the company.”

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