Domtar Dryden mill lauded as apprenticeship training leader; Papermaker workforce capable of multi-tasking.
In May, the mill was provincially recognized as a business leader in supporting apprenticeship training by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Domtar was one of four other companies honoured at the May 27 Employer Recognition Awards gala in Toronto.
The high costs of energy, power and the strong Canadian dollar have forced many forestry operators to find ways to cut costs and achieve efficiencies in all areas of production. By 2003, it became evident to then-mill manager Norm Bush that the perfect storm battering the Canadian forest industry required some creative thinking to reduce costs if the Dryden uncoated free sheet papermaking mill (then owned by Weyerhaeuser) was to survive.
One way was to have a more flexible and competitive workforce with a better method of training.
In partnership with the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) Local 105, Confederation College and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, they came up with an apprenticeship training program to enable Domtar trades people to gain additional skills and qualifications.
"Instead of having three trades people attend to one job, in the future you only have one." says Bonny Skene, a spokeswoman at the Dryden operation.
Trades involved in the program are millwright, welder, machinist, steamfitter, and electrician and instrumentation.
The first class of 12 began in September 2004. By May of this year about 90 tradespeople have gone through the program. Domtar's goal is to eventually have most of the mill's workforce achieve certification in three trades by 2012.
In working with the Ministry, they put together a chart mapping the core skills required for each trade, cross-conferenced and gave credits to those skills already acquired by tradespeople to avoid any duplication in instruction.
Skene believes it's the first time in Ontario such a structured program exists to recognize and give credit for those core skills.
Picking up additional certification makes Dryden workers a pretty hot commodity in the national labour market. It also makes them potentially good recruits for other companies to poach.
"That was definitely a concern going in, that they were going to be too marketable," says Doug Minor, the mill's maintenance and engineering manager. "But most people have lived all their lives in Dryden and there's not a really high turnover in tradespeople."
Any extra seats in the classes are made available by the Ministry to other businesses in the region. Ten forestry, electrical and machining companies from Dryden, Kenora, Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, Marathon and Barwick have taken advantage.
"Whoever needs an opening they have a choice to come here," says Minor.
A former woodlands garage on the Domtar property was converted into a training centre with a series of shop areas.
During summer when the training centre is not used by Domtar workers, it's open for Confederation's pre-apprenticeship carpentry and electrical students and for the Aboriginal Women in Skilled Trades Program.
Domtar mill reduce production capacity
Domtar employees also do some outreach through Skills Canada to promote the trades with full-day workshops at the local high school.
Given the state of the industry and market conditions, Skene concedes having a highly skilled and flexible workforce provides no silver bullet solution to ensure the mill stays open.
"We're doing everything within our control to make the site as competitive as we possibly can."
After a spate of shutdowns in 2007, Dryden residents are understandably nervous about the future of the mill.
The producer of uncoated free sheet paper employs 530 in mill operations and has another 200 woodland contractors.
The operation, acquired by Domtar from Weyerhaeuser in 2007, has a history going back to 1911 as the Dryden Power and Timber company.
The poor market for uncoated free sheet paper in the last three years forced many companies to reduce capacity, Domtar included.
Last December, the Montreal-based pulp and paper giant announced a reduction of its annual capacity of free sheet by 342,000 tons with plans to close down to Port Edward, Wisconsin mill by the second quarter of this year.
At Dryden, it meant shutting down its large workhorse No. 2 paper machine (with a production capacity of 332,000 tons), in favour of restarting its smaller No. 1 machine (production capacity of 155,000 tons).
Approximately 125 employees in Dryden were affected by the reorganization.
Skene says it was the only way to balance demand with production.
"We've restructured significantly and changed the way we organize work and schedule time around machines," says Skene, including spreading out vacation time throughout the year.
Skene won't speculate on what 2008 might bring, however the operation hasn't endured any maintenance shutdowns so far this year. However, long-term projections on free sheet demand in North America indicates market demand is failing due to electronic substitution.
By IAN ROSS
Northern Ontario Business