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Future Faces of the Industry: Talking with Canfor’s Gurminder Minhas

Gurminder Minhas is the most recent addition to this unofficial list. With a B.Sc. in Chemistry, upon graduation from UBC, he accepted an intern job in the Research and Development Centre of Canfor, a...


November 1, 2006
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Gurminder Minhas is the most recent addition to this unofficial list. With a B.Sc. in Chemistry, upon graduation from UBC, he accepted an intern job in the Research and Development Centre of Canfor, and has been with the company ever since.

“Canfor had a research division, and it seemed like a good fit,” Minhas says of his initial decision to try his hand in the industry. “I hadn’t had very much exposure to pulp and paper, despite it being such a large industry in Canada. I had seen a little bit of it in school, (and by a little bit I mean three lectures!) but considering how important the industry is to British Columbia’s economy, I wanted to get involved.”

What differentiates Minhas’ career from most others who have spent their employable years working in pulp and paper, is his strict adherence to the research side of the industry. “I’ve always been at the research centre, never in a mill,” he confirmed. The completion of his MBA provided him with an in-depth understanding of “the business side of industry,” as well as the tools and confidence in the job he holds now, as Head of Pulp and Paper R&D at Canfor Pulp and Paper in Vancouver, BC.

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Although Minhas may not spend his days in a control room at a mill, he has certainly devoted a sizeable chunk of his career thinking about people who do, and how to make their jobs easier. “I started off working closely with the mills, and Paprican, focusing on process optimization, looking at how to make mills more efficient,” he said.

The face of the industry in Canada, particularly in BC, has changed dramatically in the past decade Minhas has spent working within it. “In my last ten years, there have been three significant downsizings at Canfor,” he said. “We face a lot of competition from areas who have drastically different labour and political systems, but are competing in the same market.” British Columbia has (just like all other Canadian pulp and paper-producing provinces) to work to fend off pressures coming from places such as Brazil and Chile, whose industries are backed by cheaper trees and labour, coupled with modern, more efficient facilities. “The biggest challenge is just going to be moving forward,” Minhas feels. “On the solid wood side there has been new investment by the industry, but unfortunately investment in pulp and paper facilities is limited, it seems that operations are being maintained, but not upgraded. There is a real dichotomy here, in that markets are under cost pressures, yet the only way to compete is to invest. Where does the money come from?”

Minhas doesn’t have all the answers, but he does have suggestions. As the pulp and paper industry’s workforce retires in droves, a grievous lack of experienced workers is stepping up to replace those who are leaving. There are many varied reasons for this, but a veritable lack of university programs in Canada (or interest in them) is compounding the problem.

“Many university graduates are more attracted to the oil industry,” Minhas says matter-of-factly. Post-secondary schools are altering their offerings and redirecting their own, internal investments to reflect these societal changes. “The University of British Columbia had a non-thesis post-graduate program for engineering related to pulp and paper, but it no longer exists due to poor enrolment,” he said. A similar trend has been seen at BCIT where enrolment in the pulp and paper option of the Chemical Sciences program is down. “When I was in school, the industry was much more vibrant, especially in BC. Pulp and paper was viewed as a huge employer of university graduates at the time; that was definitely the perception of those on the outside looking in.”

It logically follows that media reports, ripe with news of mill closures, strikes, lockouts, and business going south, do little to bolster the industry’s reputation, let alone encourage a university graduate to pursue a career in the field. However, as Minhas noted, the industry should bear some of the responsibility for the way people perceive it, and adopt measures to alter those unfavorable perceptions.

“The industry is being made less and less attractive, especially in the eastern provinces, and not a lot is being done about it. This is something the industry really needs to deal with.”

Minhas highlighted some of the strategies BC is undertaking to tackle the problem, including the co-op student work programs offered by the universities. These programs are mutually beneficial to both students and industry, as many pulp mills as well as research centres tend to hire co-op students as an efficient way of bringing in temporary staff. “Often, when a co-op student comes in, it’s his or her first exposure to pulp and paper, because they’re coming from engineering and science programs, not necessarily pulp and paper backgrounds,” he pointed out. Minhas estimates that roughly 50% of younger co-op students who come into the mill through a university program will want to stay in the industry. “It really depends on what the mills are offering,” he says. “It depends where they’re located, as well.” Minhas pointed out that the oil industry is experiencing similar challenges in trying to attract young people to remote areas, however, as he noted wryly, “the compensation in the oil industry is higher.”

Other suggestions for the industry that Minhas highlighted involve investment. “The industry needs to create a positive, vibrant image, it needs to let students know that it is a viable industry with a prosperous future. If we were to build a world-class pulping facility in Canada, that would be a real sign to students that our industry is going somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s the other way around, we’re shutting mills.” Although scaling back capacity is generally thought to be a crucial step in revitalizing the industry, media outlets tend to portray these closures in an overtly negative light. “Getting rid of some of the older, less efficient capacity will help,” Minhas said. “Unfortunately, we are not seeing the reinvestment in the industry, only capacity reduction.”

The mountain pine beetle epidemic has created a situation unique to British Columbia, whereby the province has an abundance of available fibre. This has resulted in research work being conducted to fully explore what else we can do with the available resource. Something that is being done, to significant advantage, is a partnering of pulp and paper companies with energy producers, in order to provide a clean source of electricity from a renewable resource. “This is something we need to do,” Minhas says. “We need to create partnerships outside the traditional scope of pulp and paper, in order to further enhance the value created by the industry. We need to be looking at maximizing the use of the fibre resources, and evaluating the potential of other products. Paper and packaging are just some of them.” The abundance of fibre from the mountain pine beetle will go away, but hopefully the innovations created along the way will help the industry become truly prosperous.

At the government level the creation of the BC Forest Research Cluster as well as the CSF “Fibre Centre” are intended to help the industry move forward. The emphasis on transformative technologies and the uniqueness of Canadian fibre will hopefully help deliver the message to students that the industry is in the process of reinventing itself. However, as Minhas notes, it is also the responsibility of the industry to fully participate and support such programs, as they are crucial to being successful in an increasingly competitive global market.

Minhas’ current work environment provides him with inspiration. Canfor has a staff of highly dedicated people, who are in the industry for the long haul. “People are not making the leap to oil and gas at Canfor, they’re dedicated to their jobs, to the industry and to the communities they live in. We have planned carefully for succession, the problem of an aging workforce is something we acknowledge and are dealing with.” However, what is really needed at t
he company, as is the case with most other Canadian forestry companies, is fresh blood. “What we really need, are people in their 20’s through 40’s who are full of energy, committed, people who are working on the development of new technologies, biofuels, clean energy, specialty chemicals, as well as pulp and paper, essentially people who are looking to create a nice, clean package.” It’s a tall order, but hopefully, as Minhas points out, if these obstacles can be overcome, if we invest in our equipment and our people, the sun won’t be setting on our industry, it will be rising.

Note: Since the time of the interview the pulp and paper assets belonging to Canfor in Prince George BC have been formed into a new company. Minhas now works for “Canfor Pulp and Paper.”

Centering on Excellence

There are a total of seven, prominent university-level programs designed to prepare students for careers in the pulp and paper industry. Here is a brief look at a few.

MCGILL UNIVERSITY’S PULP AND PAPER RESEARCH CENTRE

A joint partnership between McGill University and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada (Paprican), the centre is a ‘unique and successful example of mutually beneficial university-industry interaction.’

To satisfy both academic and industry needs, the Centre has undertaken the following mission:

To contribute to the fundamental research needs of the Canadian pulp and paper industry by conducting world-class post-graduate research in areas of long-term relevance to the industry.

To help meet the needs of the Canadian pulp and paper industry for scientists and engineers by training students in relevant disciplines at the Masters and PhD levels.

To engage in teaching in McGill departments, to promote the dissemination of knowledge in the field of pulp and paper, and to act as an interface between Paprican and McGill departments.

To channel information on relevant worldwide academic research into Canadian pulp and paper research programs and provide a focus for research at universities that relates to the interests of the industry.

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO’S PULP & PAPER CENTRE

The university has identified a total of seventeen consortia, in order to facilitate industry participation in the centre’s research. To date, a total of five are in operation, and they include:

* Minimizing the Impact of Pulp and Paper Mill Discharges (January 2000-December 2003)

* Increasing the Throughput and Reliability of Recovery Boilers and Lime Kilns (January 2001-December 2003)

* Surface Science for Superior Paper in the Digital Era (January 2003-December 2005)

* Increasing Energy and Chemical Recovery Efficiency in the Kraft Process (January 2004-December 2008)

* Towards Ecological Balance in Pulp and Paper Operations: Application of Molecular and Engineering Sciences for the Development of Strategies for Improved Environmental Management (May 2004-April 2007)

Companies are encouraged to make financial contributions to the centre, and to participate in discussions about research results, as well as to help establish research directions.

THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA PULP AND PAPER CENTRE

The Pulp and Paper Centre houses collaborative post-graduate programs between The University of British Columbia and Paprican. These programs focus on education and research for the pulp and paper industry and are linked to the industry through Paprican’s national education program encompassing UBC, McGill University and cole Polytechnique. The research program consists of graduate student research supervised by Paprican and UBC faculty holding cross-appointments with each organization. Graduate students are assigned office and laboratory space in the Centre. MSc, MASc and PhD degrees are offered through seven departments of the University of British Columbia. These include the Departments of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Metals and Materials Engineering, Chemistry, and Microbiology and Immunology.

PAPIER

The PAPIER program started as a wood pulp network centre of excellence. Government subsidized, the centre was mandated to focus its research on mechanical pulping, and did so for close to 12 years. Although the network was keen on continuing its work, it was no longer able to secure funding for that line of research and so, in 2002, when it was on the receiving end of $0.5 million to try and foster cohesiveness within the Canadian pulp and paper industry, the organization jumped at the opportunity and PAPIER was formed.

According to director Dr. Richard Kerekes, the centre serves the industry in a variety of capacities, and stands as an invaluable research and development tool.

“The mandate is rather simple,” he acknowledges. “The directors of the seven Canadian pulp and paper centres came together, along with the vice president of research at Paprican, to form an infrastructure to support our industry and keep it going. We serve as the voice of the academic community when called upon, we help organize new networks, and support our students through organizing events specifically designed for them.”

The organization additionally partners with industry and institutional partners, in an attempt to improve the industry’s competitiveness and technological competency.

Kerekes describes membership to the PAPIER network as being ‘loose’ in its structural format, however, there are roughly 100 academics signed on at any given time.

Malaspina Graduates Get Head Start

If working for one of Canada’s oldest industries isn’t enticement enough for young people to choose a career in pulp and paper, the paycheque might be. Graduates from Malaspina University College’s Pulp and Paper Operations program can practically count on guaranteed employment, a starting salary of $50,000, great benefits and opportunity for advancement.

Ready to work in B.C. pulp and paper mills are Peter Bowhey, left, Kyle Roberts and Sean Carto, shown with instructor John Marshall at their September 15 graduation from the program. Bowhey has a job at Celgar in Castlegar; Roberts has been hired by Harmac in Nanaimo; and Carto will be working at Neucel in Port Alice. The nine-month certification program also recently saw its second female graduate, 45-year-old single mother Charlene Storti, who has already kicked off a new career with Eurocan Pulp & Paper in Kitimat.