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The future workforce: Pulp and paper requires a digital approach

An evolving landscape is shaping trends that make pulp and paper more attractive to the next generation of digital native engineers

August 24, 2021  By William Dannelly

Photo: twinsterphoto / iStock / Getty Images Plus

During my 30 years in the pulp and paper sector, I have never felt trends affecting the industry as acutely as I do now, largely due to the pandemic, which has accelerated the sector’s move towards a digital future.

And with research from global management consulting firm McKinsey estimating that digitalization could save the industry $20 billion by 2025, the pace at which this change is taking place shows no signs of abating.

Let’s look at the main trends driving new opportunity and attracting different kinds of talent to the industry.



Digitalization is one of the key paradigm shifts shaping the future of the pulp and paper sector, particularly in the way it is creating new opportunities for the workforce. It is responsible for enabling significant autonomy, and increasing efficiency and greater transparency in production. Our industry is well placed to adopt a digital-first approach, which will be essential in competing with other industries for the best new talent.

A new, technologically savvy generation of engineers are well suited to meet the opportunities and challenges presented by a digitally enabled workplace. Together, pulp and paper must work to raise its profile as an attractive place for this group of people to build a career.

Part of this emerging revolution is a move towards remote working. The advances made in removing logistical barriers to allow more people to work remotely, from wherever they want to, have been astonishing. Edge and cloud-connected technologies mean that Generation Z’s digital natives will be able to make several different contributions all at once, from process optimization to customer service, from anywhere in the world.

Our industry is well placed to adopt a digital-first approach, which will be essential in competing with other industries for the best new talent.

This level of exposure means they stand to gain experience faster than had previously been possible. Also, being able to work remotely means that talented individuals can choose to work from urban locations where they might prefer to live, rather than in the typically rural settings of pulp and paper mills, providing them with more choice and flexibility over their careers.

Current pulp and paper professionals will also be able to benefit from this expanded opportunity. Their knowledge of the pulp and paper process, coupled with a digital mindset, will open career advancement, relocation and collaboration opportunities. These remote specialists can be used as and when they are needed, enhancing the quality of output as and when required.

As a recent example of this, my company delivered a blended upgrade for ABB Ability System 800xA from 5.1 to 6.1 and the most recent QMS software for an Alberta newsprint producer. We leveraged a centrally located expert delivery team for remote commissioning, with on-site support for the resetting of controllers and related tasks. This enabled the customer to meet their schedule while saving money on travel expenses.

There have also been advances in this area in hardware and control delivery. In India, we completed the commission of the Induction xP Plus Profiler system at PM3 at Bilt Graphic Paper Products Limited, Ballarpur, marking the first time that a control engineer was able to provide remote commissioning for such a project.


A shift of skills recognition will also benefit the engineers of tomorrow, with a focus on including gaming elements in future automation systems designed to use the talents of Generation Z. This practice will be adopted across multiple levels of industry, from the design of a product all the way through to its mass production. Aside from improving the functionality of systems, it will make the sector more appealing to the young gaming generation.

A shift of skills recognition will benefit the engineers of tomorrow, with a focus on including gaming elements in future automation systems.

We have already seen glimpses of what this can achieve at our company. In 2019, our interns developed a training application with augmented reality headsets that was both fun and progressive, as well as productive. And at our most recent annual hackathon, teams were formed with participants from multiple locations, where in the past they would have been more traditionally localized. The output was truly top notch, with the increased diversity leading to very creative approaches to old problems.

Environmental accountability

Creating greater accountability for our environmental impact is another key factor in attracting a new generation of engineers to the workforce. More than ever, young people have a desire to affect change in society; they want to have a vested interest in companies that share their values and beliefs. To that end, it is imperative that we promote what we do to prove we are as committed to sustainability as any other sector.

Paper mills have invested huge amounts of money to reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase energy efficiency. The entire paper and printing sector uses a very high amount of renewable energy from biomass, meaning that it contributes about one per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2010 study by energy and climate consultancy Ecofys. For example, a recent installation of our Wet End Control, an advanced process control solution, helped an Indonesian paper mill reduce chemicals by 20 per cent among other reductions. By making the wet end process less variable with less raw materials, the mill was able to reduce downtime and run more efficiently.

Through engaging people with our efforts to switch to low-carbon fuels and sustainable forestry, as well as other environmental measures, we can appeal to the future eco-conscious workforce.

Skills and training transformation

While these advances are making processes more efficient and increasing staff engagement, it is worth highlighting a few key complex issues that may need to be addressed in the proliferation of digitized workspaces.

First, self-initiative and discipline is more essential now than it has ever been. With the flexibility to work remotely, self-motivation is necessary to succeed without the consistent presence of a mentor or boss. The onus will be on the employee to find a work/life balance that works for them. At the same time, relationships with colleagues are an integral part of job success and satisfaction, and we need to find a way to protect these.

Equally important, the future workforce must not fall into the trap of thinking that their superior digital skills alone will get them hired. There must also be a level of understanding of how processes work to solve real problems. It is as much about how you apply the information, as it is knowing the information in the first place.

However, of all the trends we see emerging in the digital workplace, we cannot look past the necessity for true, on-the-job experience. Without that solid, traditional foundation in pulp and paper, even the most exciting digital solutions will lose their stickiness.


William Dannelly is global product line manager for pulp and paper, ABB.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Pulp & Paper Canada

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