Jeff Landin is on a mission to break through stereotypes and misconceptions that the paper industry in Wisconsin is dying.
“Wisconsin is still the No. 1 paper-making state in the country and it’s home to industries that cover the whole lifecycle from forest harvesting to paper making to the strong converting industry,” says Landin, the president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, which is headquartered in Grand Chute. “People just think of paper as it relates to what you write on, but tissue is a huge industry in Wisconsin. For example, all of the brown paper in every Reese’s peanut butter cup is made in Wisconsin.”
Raising paper’s profile – which seems to only make headlines when a paper mill shuts down, putting hundreds out of work – is essential as the industry takes on a challenge facing many manufacturers – finding enough skilled workers. The average age of a worker in a paper or converting mill is in the 50s and only going up. As those workers retire, Landin says there is a real concern about who will take their place.
“For a long time, kids have been steered away from careers in paper and people think it’s a dying industry, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s a vibrant, growing industry. The paper industry isn’t going to go away.”
Converters – companies that take basic paper and then make everything from toilet paper to specialized packaging – are the industry’s bright spot.
Many paper and converting companies are reaching out to high school-age students and younger to show students and their parents just what a job in the industry is like.
“There are a lot of misconceptions – that these are boring jobs in a dark, dirty mill, but our mills are clean, bright places that use a lot of technology,” Landin says. “These aren’t the jobs that people think they are.”
Beyond reaching out to schools, Landin works with workforce development boards and education programs at different chambers of commerce offices to make sure they are aware of the industry’s offerings.
“We need to get back to the front of mind when it comes to job options for students. These are good-paying jobs,” he says. “Our workforce is aging and we are going to need a lot of workers to fill those spots as they retire.”
Regulations cause concern
While the paper industry is doing well, Landin admits challenges remain. Not only are companies facing stiff competition from overseas, especially China, but new environmental rules, specifically the Boiler MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) rule, may require millions in capital improvements that some companies may be unable to afford.
“Regulations continue to be the top concern among our members,” Landin says. “We’re not saying we shouldn’t protect our environment. We just think some of these new Environmental Protection Agency changes for coal-powered plants may only have negligible results and they’re costing millions.”
The Boiler MACT rule, proposed as a way to curb emissions of pollutants from industrial boilers, was announced by the EPA in December and published in February and gives companies until February 2016 to comply. That has some companies with coal-powered boilers scrambling a bit.
Appleton Papers has already decided to convert its coal-powered boilers in Appleton to gas, but what changes to make at each facility will be done individually, says Pam Barker, executive director of environmental, health and product safety for the papermaker.
“Companies need to decide what to do. Not all boilers can be converted to use gas or in some cases, gas might not be available,” she says. “Some companies may look at putting on better controls. You just need to figure out what you need to do to be compliant and weigh all the costs.”
Landin explains that many mills – especially those in Wisconsin – are older and rely on coal as a power source.
“Companies don’t like uncertainty. They worry that investing millions of dollars to become compliant might not fix all of the problems,” he says. “For some companies, they have mills in other places that are powered by natural gas and they might look at moving operations there and shutting down the coal-powered plants. We just don’t know.”
While Appleton Papers waited for the EPA to make its decision last December about the new rules, there was a lot of hand-wringing. “No one could really predict what the final rules were going to be, but now that we know what’s happening, we need to move ahead,” Landin says. “It’s always a fine walk between protecting the environment and doing what’s best for the company.”