A plan on paper

Grant will fund study on future of state’s papermaking industry

Posted on Sep 14, 2020 :: Plant News
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

A yearlong project between the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and the Wisconsin Paper Council aims to develop a strategic framework to guide the state’s paper industry and prepare it to meet challenges and embrace opportunities.

The UW-Oshkosh Center for Customized Research and Services (CCRS) will lead the project, which was one of several awarded grant funding through the WiSys Ignite program. Ignite provides faculty, staff and students across the UW System’s 13 comprehensive universities with opportunities to apply their knowledge to build the state’s economy.

Wisconsin’s paper industry has faced ups and downs and gone through many metamorphoses throughout the years. COVID-19 has brought a new set of challenges to the industry, including supply chain issues, worker protection concerns and meeting shifting consumer demand, says Scott Suder, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council.

While demand for toilet paper and disinfecting wipes has made headlines, the industry has also endured setbacks. When schools and businesses closed, a major segment of many paper companies’ business suffered.

“Our industry has had to make a lot of changes, and at the same time, because of diversification, most of our industry has been able to meet those challenges,” he says.

Jeffrey Sachse, interim director of the CCRS, says the project will begin with organizing working groups of industry experts in coordination with the paper council and include a series of surveys that will be distributed across the industry.

The project primarily will focus on workforce challenges but will look at innovation and sustainability as well. The team wants to get a better sense of where companies see themselves now, five years into the future and beyond, Sachse says.

The work will include convening a series of stakeholder listening sessions around the state. In addition to company leaders, it will include partners at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the legislature, labor leaders, and UW-Oshkosh faculty and students.

When assessing labor challenges, Sachse says it’s important to look directly at the paper industry as well as up and down the supply chain related to that. For example, workforce shortages in the trucking, forest management and logging industries also affect the paper industry.

Many paper companies also face challenges stemming from their locations, which tend to be more closely connected to smaller or more rural communities, Sachse says. The project aims to provide a 20- to 25-year picture and will look at specific needs of plants as well as the demographics of surrounding communities.

Suder says the industry needs talent at all levels, from production to engineering to research and development, but many outdated ideas about the industry persist and hamper efforts to attract workers.

“There’s false narratives out there, that one the industry is dying and two that jobs are so-so,” he says. “This is not your grandfather’s paper mill. This is a highly technological, highly skilled, very well-paying industry.”

With major industry investments from companies including Green Bay Packaging and ND Paper in Biron, the industry must be prepared to meet the needs for talent. Green Bay Packaging is building a $500 million facility that is the largest economic development project in the history of Green Bay and Brown County. ND Paper is investing $189 million in its Biron plant.

In addition to looking at ways to draw talent, the research project will look at technology solutions. “The reason why innovation and technology need to be part of that conversation is because of the fact that in areas or industries where you are so starved for talent, technology may provide some solutions,” Sachse says.

The project will provide a detailed analysis of challenges and opportunities along with specific recommendations for action. The report is expected to come out in the late spring of 2021.