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Week of 2 December 13: The continuing personnel shortage

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Despite the overall employment rate in developed economies remaining stubbornly high, when it comes to trained technical professionals, especially in the pulp and paper industry, a shortage seems to exist worldwide.

How did we get in this situation, which seems especially difficult in the United States? 

Events of the last twenty years hold the answer.  First, the general recession the industry experienced starting about 1994 and continuing for nearly fifteen years kept many young people from choosing pulp and paper as a career.  This recession started in newsprint and spread to printing and writing grades (Containerboard and tissue were never really affected). However, this cast a pall over the whole industry, particularly for young people not savvy to paper grade nuances and differences.  They avoided entering our schools and the industry in droves, for we were not hiring.

At the same time, as the Chinese market exploded, professionals already in the industry in the US and Europe moved to China, often working for suppliers, as that business demanded an extraordinary number of technologists. Also, all sectors of the petroleum industry continued to successfully compete for the best and brightest engineering school graduates, offering the highest entry pay levels and brightest career prospects to newly graduated engineers.


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Now, we find ourselves with a fifteen year experience gap in the ranks.  Those who should be moving into significantly responsible roles are absent from the industry at a time of stabilization of the fortunes of the industry.  For young people just getting out of school, their timing is fortunate.  Their careers should rapidly develop.  For the companies, the story is different—they are finding severe shortages and gaps that are difficult to fill.

What to do?  In the last three years, we have seen the class size in the pulp and paper schools explode, but this is too little too late. It will fill the gap—but ten years from now.  Today is the problem.

Large companies seem to be grabbing attractive experienced candidates as they can find them, and if they don’t have a place to put them immediately, they build bench strength and use these people as in house roaming consultants until they have a permanent home for them.  Smaller companies cannot do this—they can’t afford to build a bench that is not fully engaged. 


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Another solution is to attract those who should be in retirement by now.  However, this takes special precautions all the way around.  A battery of attitude and physical testing is needed to assure these prospects will be viable contributors.  And, of course, this brings into consideration other issues—your HR department will tell you if you are legally in trouble should you choose to test only certain categories of applicants (likely you will have to administer such testing to all candidates).

The bottom line is simple and not pleasant.  From an employer point of view, the only choice is to tough it out.  The only bright point is that the situation may force improvements in efficiency and effectiveness with long term benefits to the companies.

So, what is the point of this column?  It is time for the industry to stop “shooting itself in the foot” due to a short term problem.  This entire situation could have been avoided had a slightly longer view of the needs of the industry been taken by top management at the time.  This is not the first time an expedient short term action has been implemented and it probably won’t be the last.  Yet, it should be a lesson for all of us to consider as future events unfold.

We’ll take a quiz break this week as the US portion of our readership will be eating turkey and watching football as this column debuts.

For safety this week, consider that safety has both short and long term aspects.  Use appropriate judgment to meet all safety metrics as time goes by.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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