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Education: Working Smarter Not Harder

If we lived in an ideal world, employers would know precisely what training employees need, and the outcomes would become as predictable as engineering laws -- corporate productivity, efficiency and over-all employee well-being would be at their o...


September 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Topics

If we lived in an ideal world, employers would know precisely what training employees need, and the outcomes would become as predictable as engineering laws — corporate productivity, efficiency and over-all employee well-being would be at their optimal levels.

That’s the ideal world. In the real world, full of human frailties and fears, many companies are scrambling to make sound economic, strategic and ethical decisions while operating in a highly competitive global marketplace that rewards winners and penalizes losers. The stock market is a cruel taskmaster. Small wonder, then, that making the right decisions seems more crucial than ever.

Training proves no exception. The perceived wisdom among pulp and paper companies is that training and its sister, education, are both highly important, if only to ensure that companies have a process in place to transfer knowledge, information and best operating practices to the next generation of workers. It’s no secret that the workforce’s median age is creeping higher, doubtless a worrisome sign. And a sure way to lose good, motivated and thoughtful employees is to do nothing towards their training and education. Yet, only a handful of Canadian companies have a continuing strategic emphasis on training and education.

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Part of the explanation lies in the expense to train employees. To be sure, training is expensive, and its effectiveness is increased when it forms a part of a greater corporate strategy. Besides the cost of hiring a training firm and buying educational materials, or sending an employee to a course across the country, there is the hidden cost of lost productivity when employees are not at their workstations.

In tough economic times, when profits are razor-thin or non-existent, as they are for the most part today, corporate accountants consider training an extravagance. “Training is the first to go, but that’s the wrong approach,” says Doug Moynihan, a partner with Northwest Training and Development, a training firm based in Thunder Bay, ON. “If companies would conduct a cost-benefit analysis in the first place on what the real costs and benefits of training are, they would conclude that training is the last thing to cut. There is a huge cost to not train employees.”

At the Pulp and Paper Technical Association of Canada, the numbers are down. Compared to 10 years ago, fewer people are signing up for courses that PAPTAC offers. Although 31% more people took courses in 2003 than in 2002, Carmie Lato, course coordinator for PAPTAC, says those numbers are misleading. “That equates to only an additional 50 people,” she says.

Of the half dozen courses the trade association offers, Papermaking remains the most popular, but even its numbers are significantly down from the glory days of the 1980s, when it attracted up to 70 people. “Now it’s averaging 35 people, and we’re happy,” she says.

In addition, they are later in making a decision to commit. “Many times we’ve been ready to pull the plug on a course, and then 10 or 20 registrations come in at the same time,” Lato says. “People tend to register two weeks before the course begins.”

Retaining good employees

Despite their cautiousness in making decisions, many companies are training. In addition, most of the training currently taking place is geared to the transmission of technical knowledge. “It’s teaching individuals the best way to manage the paper machine, to getting an optimal return on chemical additives, to tweaking electro-mechanical control systems,” Moynihan points out. Vendors conduct such training as part of the sales agreement.

Even so, training comes in many forms. Take the Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc.’s mill in Boyle, AB, which has two programs in place. The first, started about 10 years ago, has been to take a workforce consisting primarily of farmers and “train them to become pulpers with a high degree of proficiency,” says Bill DeWeert, senior training consultant with the company. The mill, which has about 450 full-time employees, has put 75 maintenance and operations people through the program. “The objective is to ensure that employees have at least the basic skills to do their job,” DeWeert says.

The second, which the company rolled out this year, is a classic leadership program with emphasis on team- and consensus-building as well as on communication skills. Currently, 30 hand-picked managers and senior managers are enrolled, many of them engineers and other technical types. “Technical people like engineers are hired precisely because they have the technical skills that we need,” DeWeert says. “In the leadership program, the engineers learn the softer skills of communication and team motivation. These skills are extremely important, because being a leader is, in part, helping people to enjoy what they do.”

Studies show that effective training has the added benefit of reducing employee turnover. “One of the key reasons that employees stay at a company is that they can grow and learn,” Moynihan of Northwest Training says. “That’s an area that all high-performing companies understand — in order to attract, retain and motivate employees, companies have to provide training that is not only relevant, but also improves job performance.” (Moynihan, who recently received an MBA in high-performance teams, says that there is quite a bit of demand for such training.)

A different approach

The other side of training is education, and notably the recruitment of graduate engineers. The thinking behind hiring young graduate engineers can be compared to giving a blood transfusion to an individual who suffers from anaemia. The engineer gains employment; the mill gains new blood, so to speak.

Yet, many mills never get to see the best young engineering minds that Canadian universities churn out year after year, mainly because since the early 1990s there has been almost no hiring of graduate engineers, says Paul Stuart, who is teaching a new PAPTAC course on process integration, and is an associate professor at cole Polytechnique’s department of chemical engineering in Montreal. The consequence is severe, he adds. “Students consider pulp and paper a smokestack industry rather than the high-tech industry it really is,” Stuart says. “And in general, students don’t see pulp and paper as sexy.”

The lack of consistent hiring has contributed to the closure of a one-year master’s program in engineering, which was launched by Paprican at McGill University and University of British Columbia to great fanfare in the early 1980s (Stuart was a doctoral student at McGill during the program’s inception.) “It went along with varying numbers of students from year to year.”

Recently, it started to attract fewer students, and now it has been closed indefinitely, Stuart says. “The program’s aim was to give students the very best of Paprican, McGill and UBC, and to bring in a number of leading industry people to give seminars and, equally, to give students high visibility to the industry.” A new version of program, however, is scheduled to start in September. (See PPC, July 2004.)

Because of the original program’s closure, there has been much soul-searching on what went wrong. One area to examine, Stuart points out, is the obvious difference between the way companies in Canada and the US recruit from universities. In general, Americans have greater affiliation with their alma maters after graduation. “We don’t have such loyalties in Canada,” Stuart says. “For example, when International Paper looks for graduates, it will go year after year to University of Michigan, and IPST will go to North Carolina State University.”

Some Canadian companies, however, like NorskeCanada in British Columbia and Fraser Papers in Edmundston, NB, have been emulating the American system of hiring. “They are forward-thinking and progressive mills that hired good solid engineers who had gone through this program,” Stuart says, in reference to the just-closed master’s program. In addition, some initiatives underway might pave the way for imparting skills to the next-generation of researchers. Th
e launch of PAPIER, an academic-industry collaboration, is an important program. (See sidebar, Imparting Skills and Knowledge: PAPIER.)

Another much-discussed option in the last few years is online courses. It has its sceptics. When PAPTAC canvassed its members about online courses, the response was “keep things the way they always have been — classroom mode,” Lato says. The classroom provides that interaction among peers. Sitting down over a cup of coffee and sharing experiences seems to hold a lot of value for most people.”

Although Stuart concedes that “nothing replaces face-to-face instruction,” the Internet has a viable place in training and education. “There’s no doubt that Web-based learning is the way to go in pulp and paper,” Stuart says. “You have mills in rural areas that can have access to courses. It’s cost-effective at a time when expertise in many areas is getting thin.”

The unions speak out

Which brings up the knotty issue of how to deal with an ageing workforce. “Maintenance training is the biggest issue facing the Canadian industry,” says Fred Wilson, assistant to the president for Ottawa-based Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, or CEP. “Simply put, the industry is ageing, and there are insufficient people behind it to take over. It’s an issue that the industry has known about for years, yet most companies fail to do something to address it.” (See sidebar, An Ode to Older Workers.)

The statistics are sobering. More than 40% of current tradespeople are eligible for retirement in three to five years. And in 10 years, more than half the skilled workforce faces retirement. According to collective agreements in the pulp and paper industry, the retirement age is currently between 58 and 60 in Canada. In some trades, the shortage is acute, mainly because of demands from the oil and gas sector. “The skills shortage in mechanical trades and heavy equipment operators will be with us for a while,” Wilson says.

For Wilson and the CEP, an innovative but time-honoured solution lies in adopting an apprenticeship program, which is common in such European nations as France and Germany. NorskeCanada and the CEP recently signed an agreement to launch an apprenticeship program, where the company and the unions have an equal voice in the program’s participants. Wilson of the CEP lauds NorskeCanada’s initiative. “They are addressing the human-resources needs through an aggressive apprenticeship program worked out in cooperation with the unions.”

Such is good news, and it might solve the anticipated shortage of skilled tradespeople. Another issue is equally important — bringing innovation and young minds to mills. The industry has at its disposal what human resources people call highly qualified personnel (HQP), equating to dozens of graduate students coming out of the graduate engineering programs at such research universities as University of New Brunswick, McGill and University of British Columbia. The Canadian industry, for the most part, is ignoring this talent pool. Thus, many HQPs end up at other allied industries such as chemicals and mining.

“It’s a very tough time to hire HQPs,” Stuart says. “But it is absolutely critical that mills do. If they don’t have highly qualified engineers in place, they will have a hard time dealing with problems, and failures are ripe to happen. Mills are running too lean.”

To be sure, the forward-thinking companies will not only survive, but thrive. Management-school case studies have pointed out that the best companies have a culture of innovation and learning. “A company is forever trying to improve,” DeWeert of Al-Pac says. “What we want to impart are skills that make our people think in a continuous improvement fashion — always having in the back of their minds there are better ways to do things.”

Perry J. Greenbaum, a freelance business and technology writer, divides his time between Montreal and a rural community near Concord, New Hampshire. He can be reached at pjgreenbaum@metrocast.net.

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Imparting Skills and Knowledge: PAPIER

The Canadian Pulp and Paper Network for Innovation in Education and Research, or PAPIER, was launched in January to great expectation. One of its chief aims is to, as it puts it, “enhance education and training programs to equip science and engineering graduate students with skills and knowledge relevant to research and technical careers in the pulp and paper industry.”

PAPIER follows on the heels of the successful 12-year run of the Mechanical Wood-Pulps Network of Centres of Excellence, which increased university research for the industry. PAPIER, a national network, will work with its stakeholders and partners to unite Canada’s academic and industrial communities engaged in pulp and paper research.

“The establishment of PAPIER will ensure that Canada’s resource of academic researchers continues to play a significant role in improving the technical competitiveness of the Canadian pulp and paper industry in the 21st century,” says George N. Rosenberg, managing director of the Network.

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Attracting Aboriginal Youth

There are a number of measures underway to attract aboriginal youth to the forestry sector. “We want to encourage aboriginal youth to consider careers in the forestry sector,” says Lorraine Rekmans, executive director for National Aboriginal Forestry Association (NAFA), an Ottawa-based advocacy group. “But that has been a tough job, because there is no way, in some cases, to track aboriginals. You get into the sensitive issue of race-based reporting.”

The association, however, released a report a few years ago, which stated that out of 12,000 professionally registered foresters, only 80 were of aboriginal descent, less than one percent of all foresters in Canada. “It’s significant to know that even though aboriginal communities are located within close proximity of commercial forestry activities, we don’t have many trained professionals,” Rekmans points out. “We know that we are under-represented.”

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An Ode to Older Workers

While much has been written on the benefits of youth, there is no denying that the median age of the pulp and paper industry is creeping higher. Less than a decade ago, workers over 45 were considered “older workers.” In a few years, older workers will make up the majority of those employed.

Studies done in the US by the American Association of Retired Persons, a lobby group for older people, reported that managers have both positive and negative views of older workers. Among the findings:

The positive traits include low absenteeism, low turnover, good work habits and high degree of corporate loyalty.

The managers viewed older workers as inflexible of new technology, ability to learn new skills, and difficult to train.

In general, older workers were considered loyal and possessing good work habits, but hard to train, especially on newer technologies.

Such are the perceptions, as unfair as they might be. “Research in both Canada and the US suggests that many employers think older workers are more difficult to train, and are not likely to return the economic investment for formal training,” says a report, The Aging Workforce, a study commissioned by the CEP in 2002. “While there is considerable evidence to suggest that this is not true, the persistence of this issue results in older workers getting less opportunities for formal training.”