Pulp and Paper Canada

Maintenance matters:

November 1, 2008  By Pulp & Paper Canada

An aging workforce and market competition from the oil and mining industries are among the many factors that have led to a shortage of skilled tradespeople in the pulp and paper industry. On top of th…

An aging workforce and market competition from the oil and mining industries are among the many factors that have led to a shortage of skilled tradespeople in the pulp and paper industry. On top of that, pulp and paper’s negative connotation as a “sunset industry” is not helping to attract young maintenance workers, who may completely overlook it in their search for a career.

But, it’s not all bad: although times may be tough right now, a number of industry experts say new technology and equipment will create many opportunities for maintenance workers over the next few years. The future of the industry, many say, is a bright one, which should be taken advantage of right now, even before it arrives.


Dropping demand, closing mills, employee layoffs -these are the some of the words that often come to people’s minds when you say “pulp and paper.”

“I know 20, 25 years ago, the pulp and paper industry was the place to go,” said Dan Schreiner, president of Prince George, B. C.-based North Central Group, which specializes in providing maintenance services to the pulp and paper, oil and gas, mining, chemical, sawmill, and forestry industries. “Today, it’s not. People are looking at it and saying, three, four plants have shut down. Is that an industry I want to go into?”

According to Patrice Mangin, director of the Centre intgr en ptes et papiers (integrated pulp and paper research centre) at the l’Universit du Qubec Trois-Rivires, mill closures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the shortage of skilled maintenance workers in the industry.

“The image problem goes deeper than people think,” he said, adding maintenance workers have started looking for new jobs and leaving for other industries even though their mill is still up and running. “They’re afraid they might be the next in line.”

John Yolton, maintenance strategy consultant for SKF’s Global Pulp and Paper Segment, has witnessed this first-hand: one mill he has worked with in Alberta is currently under “tremendous pressure” to hang on to their maintenance workers who may be tempted to leave for the relative security and higher wages offered in the oil fields right next door.

“They’re really in trouble to find good, skilled workers that’ll work for the wages they’re willing to pay,” Yolton said.

An aging workforce on the edge of retirement is also a significant factor, said Kenny Sawyer, director of human resources for commercial printing papers at Montreal, Que.-based AbitibiBowater. He added the average age of workers is currently between 48 and 52.

That’s one of the main issues at Canfor Pulp Limited Partnership (CPLP) in Prince George, said human resources general manager David Scott.

“Just about all the attrition we experience is from people retiring,” he said. There are plenty of career opportunities for young workers, if they want them: millwrights, pipe fitters, welders and instrument mechanics are just some positions open at Canfor’s three Prince George mills.

“Basically, all the trades that are out there, we have opportunities for them,” Scott said.

A “doomed” industry’s potential

These opportunities are not limited to British Columbia. At Kruger’s Corner Brook Pulp and Paper Limited (CBPPL) in western Newfoundland, for example, millwrights, e/i technicians, reliability engineers, maintenance managers and superintendents are some of the positions that need to be filled, according to planning and reliability superintendent David Lockyer. With retirement and workers leaving to move into the mining and oil industries, low manpower and old equipment can mean flexibility becomes compromised, things don’t get fixed properly, and issues repeat themselves, he said.

The jobs are there, but filling them is another story.

“The industry has been in a downsizing mode due to the shrinking demand for newsprint. Therefore, in the past few years, mills have been shutting down. This takes the ‘shine’ off the industry for those seeking a job,” said CBPPL’s industrial relations supervisor Shane Young. “The paper industry has to look within to try and get the current workforce back to having a positive outlook and a positive attitude, which will in turn put pride back into the industry. This will send the message to new skilled workers that it is a good industry in which to be employed.”

But how do you keep your head up in an industry some are quick to say is “doomed?” The experts Pulp & Paper Canada spoke to said the big picture should always be kept in mind. With the introduction of new technology and equipment, the industry is rapidly going through many changes. A shift towards more preventative maintenance and reliability in mills, as well as the possibility of biorefinery on the horizon are two of these driving factors.

“And what do you need? Maintenance,” said Mangin. “The transformation of the industry creates the need. We, in the pulp and paper industry, are in the best possible position…It’s the time in between that’s hurting.”

In Quebec’s Mauricie region -home to the l’Universit du Qubec Trois- Rivires -there will be substantial demand for industrial maintenance workers over the next four years. With a population of just under 260,000 according to the 2006 Canadian census and five major pulp and paper mills, Quebec’s governmental employment bureau estimates the Mauricie region will need to fill 25 industrial maintenance positions in 2010, 75 in 2011, and 52 in 2012.

“And that’s only in this region,” Mangin emphasized.

According to Scott at CPLP in Prince George, the job opportunities are open to young tradespeople just starting out and those who have been in the business for many years. In fact, many tradespeople recruited at CPLP over the past six months have come from other mills that have permanently or temporarily shut down.

“There are great opportunities for all kinds of tradesmen. It’s very challenging work. There’s an expectation -they need to be creative and make a contribution to the organization every day they’re on shift,” he said. “Even for a young person new to the trade, this is a great place to learn. There’s a lot of mentoring that goes on in our workplace.”

And in a changing industry, skill expectations are changing, too.

“It’s not your father’s workplace anymore,” said AbitibiBowater’s Sawyer. There is a misperception, he added, that a job at a mill means dirty, hard, and mundane work. However, that couldn’t be more wrong, Sawyer said, as jobs in modern mills usually require quite a bit of technological know-how.

“I think the skills levels are becoming increasingly more difficult, particularly on the electrical and instrumentation side, of course because the technology has really advanced there,” Yolton of SKF agreed. “But also, on the mechanical side, one of the reasons there’s been an increase of the skills levels is that they’re combining skills. Back in the old days, you were a millwright, you were a pipe fitter, a machinist, a lubricator, or something like that. Today, those skills are combined in a modern mill. It’s called ‘multi-trade’ or multi-skilled.'”

An ounce of prevention…

Schreiner of North Central Group believes one of the main reasons the need for skilled maintenance technicians and tradespeople in the pulp and paper industry has “never been higher” is related to a shift in maintenance philosophies. The industry, he said, will have to get out of the catch-22 it has been stuck in to survive: “The next five years will continue to see higher demand for reliability engineers/technicians, lubrication specialists, vibration technicians, shutdown coordinators, planners and tradesmen. But it won’t be without some challenges,” he said. “The newest pulp and paper facilities in Canada are starting to push 20 years old, with most 40 to 50 years [old], and we are seeing more and more plants close their doors. If plants have not already taken an aggressive approach to improving reli
ability and optimizing maintenance shutdowns, it will be difficult for them to weather the next down cycle. This will contribute to the stigma that the pulp and paper industry is a sunset industry, thus reducing the ability to attract skilled workers.”

The problem until now, Schreiner said, is mills have looked at maintenance as a “necessary evil” that was expensive but didn’t give much immediate payback.

“The old view was, if I don’t take that area shutdown, I can make more pulp today. But three years down the road, that production capacity will start to drop off, because equipment is starting to fail. You end up gaining today and sacrificing tomorrow,” Schreiner said, adding it takes between three to five years to start seeing the impact of maintenance activities. “It’s like an RRSP. You keep on contributing, contributing, contributing, and you really don’t see very much until the last period of time that it’s in there. Then she starts picking up speed.”

In order to survive the changing industry, mills will have to alter their view of maintenance as a “necessary evil” and see it as a core part of the business, Schreiner said.

“The mills, if they have delayed the shift to a very maintenance-focused approach, they will struggle,” he added.

With more and more mills changing their philosophies and facing the stiff competition for skilled tradespeople and contractors, Schreiner said organizations are starting to develop long-term strategic, performance-based partnerships with companies like North Central Group, which provides fully integrated maintenance services. While North Central’s hiring depends on the amount of work they have to do, Schreiner said the company is always on the lookout for skilled resources.

“I think we’re going into the realization that what we’ve got now doesn’t work. I think the philosophy is going to migrate to this one,” he said. “I believe there is a future in the pulp and paper industry, but it will look different.”

Biorefinery and a bright future?

A shift towards more maintenance-based operations isn’t the only factor contributing to a rising demand for skilled workers. New technology and equipment calls for new skilled employees, and biorefinery is no exception.

SKF’s Yolton, who spoke to Pulp & Paper Canada from the 2008 International Bioenergy and Bioproducts Conference in Portland, Ore. in August, said we are getting very close to using pulp mills as biorefineries.

“Basically, what they’ve discovered is that they can generate fuel from cellulose and still continue to operate the pulp mills,” Yolton said. He explained that pulp mills, with little capital expenditure, would be able to add biorefinery plants adjacent to their existing operations and benefit from the “tremendous revenue potential.” Currently, there are pilot projects in the U. S. experimenting with about five different technologies.

“What they’re really trying to do is to narrow that down to one or two [technologies] that make economic sense… I think you’re going to see an explosion once they settle on that technology,” Yolton said. “If it turns out to be good and cost effective, the pulp mills in Canada will be at the forefront. In fact, they’ll be better off than the oil and gas fields.”

The prospects that come with the possibility of including biorefinery in the pulp and paper industry also open up new job opportunities, especially in the maintenance field.

“It’ll be a completely separate plant,” with separate equipment and technologies, Yolton pointed out, adding he is optimistic this new technology will be a reality within the next five to 10 years.

“In fact, I’m hoping less than that. But, of course, that has a lot to do with the U. S. market.”

Patrice Mangin echoed that sentiment: “It (biorefinery) is coming sooner than most people think.” The problem, however, is that pulp and paper’s image problem in the general public reaches into the schools as well: there are no students in the classrooms learning about the new technologies, forcing schools to suspend or completely abandon courses and programs. The result, Mangin said, is there won’t be enough skilled workers to fill the positions created by the industry’s transformation unless something is done now.

Attracting talent and skill

“We need to do more advertising,” Mangin said, adding pulp and paper must be promoted as a strong industry on the recovery from hard times that is now full of opportunity. “It was bad, but it is getting better. How do you bridge the gap for people until then?”

At CPLP in Prince George, it is not only the jobs that are promoted, but the lifestyle as well. “We try to make sure we put a good foot forward and make sure people reading those advertisements recognize not only does CPLP have a lot to offer, but this region has a lot to offer,” Scott said. For example, he added, the cost of living is very reasonable and outdoor life and location add to a high quality of life as well.

For Yolton, it’s about promoting the trades and getting kids interested in the industry early on.

“It’s a cultural, generational thing. All the kids want to be rock stars or professional athletes, or whatever. They don’t want to work in a mill. I really think that’s the fundamental issue we have in Canada and the U. S.,” he said. “Certainly, there has to be some sort of promotion of the industry at the high school level. There is none or very little of that happening right now.”

But the overall consensus seems to be there is a future in the pulp and paper industry -one that is especially strong in the maintenance field.

“I would look at a future in the pulp and paper industry as a maintenance mechanic as a good future,” Yolton said. “There may be some difficult times right now, but eventually that will straighten out. And those are good jobs -high paying, secure and challenging.”

“Maintenance is what keeps all industry going. Without it, there is no production. Young people should consider the industry, but have to do so by being smarter and investigating each company with whom they may apply,” said Shane Young of CBPPL. “There is always risk no matter what job or industry, however this should not deter younger, skilled workers, as they should look at it as experience.”


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