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The role of pulp and paper education today: declining employment and persistent recession in the paper industry is challenging the traditional role of pulp and paper schools.

I clearly remember the little girl proudly looking at me with eager anticipation. I had come to her classroom with a 16 mm film about papermaking provided by the mill where I worked. Her eyes were dancing. I showed the film and donned all my safety gear. I told the little girl's first grade class about the manufacture of the paper they used every day.

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A few years later, I took this same girl on a personal tour of the mill I was managing. She subsequently moved to Finland--a country steeped in the importance of the pulp and paper industry. After a few years had passed, she accompanied me as a young teenager on a tour of a pulp and paper science school in the Southeastern United States. Next spring, she will receive her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Texas--having never pulped one pound of cellulose. For me, the elapsed time between all these events seems to be about 15 minutes. I am her Dad.

I felt responsible to expose her to what I did for a living. More importantly, I wanted her to have the opportunity to decide what she wanted to do with her life because it is her life. I was surprised she entered the engineering profession at all. I expected her to study mathematics. She does have great career insight. In high school, when she discovered astronomy, she said, "Dad, I love the math in astronomy, but could I make a living in that field?" Maybe she had also harbored such thoughts about the paper industry but never verbalized them.

Preparing for this article, I surveyed pulp and paper school administrators and graduates in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. The answers they provided to my questions seem like a cheating class collaborating during a final exam. Their answers were almost identical! First, they all reported that the average age of professors is increasing. As one respondent stated, "The average age is increasing one year per year." In other words, schools are attracting no new staff.

The percentage of graduates electing to pursue advanced degrees did vary somewhat with reports that 10%-50% decided to seek education beyond the bachelor's degree. Of those going into the workplace upon graduation, approximately half are joining mills, and half are joining suppliers.

The schools in the United States especially seem to suffer from many financial problems. The poor returns on investments in recent years, coupled with highly conservative guidelines for investing endowed scholarship funds have left these schools with little room to maneuver in sweetening scholarships--an important key to attracting new students. In most cases, increases in old and creation of new endowments is also suffering. Adding to this is the problem of state budget imbalances causing increasing tuition--most schools in the United States are adjuncts of state-run universities. Most schools are reeling under the weight of financial burdens.

All these conditions combine to leave administrators, professors, alumni, and students discouraged about their choice of careers. Given these very real conditions of the pulp and paper industry today, this self-feeding and self-perpetuating melancholy makes attracting bright young students to the industry extremely difficult. One question in my survey asked, "If you are experiencing a long-term decline in enrollment, to what do you attribute this?" One school responded as follows:

"In some cases, it appears to be misinformation available to students. 'Common knowledge' is that the key to a future is a college education, but little differentiation is made between different programs. Engineering seems to be overlooked in favor of less demanding curricula. In addition, a number of mill closings in [our] state have decreased interest in paper science and engineering as a career choice."

Sometimes those at the top of our industry seem to have lost sight of the solid science that created this industry initially. As one school leader in my survey responded, "The leadership of the industry needs to act before we have a major crisis (lack of students interested in our industry)."

In terms of being responsive to the changing needs of the industry and the opportunities modern technology provides, many schools report that distance-learning courses have sometimes increased from nothing to a significant part of their offerings with the widespread use of the Internet. Often directed at the full-time professional employee, these courses provide economical opportunities--especially in remote locations--for staying current with technology and techniques.

Looking for another perspective, I interviewed a CEO who has been in the industry for 35 years. He had a slightly different slant on the entire subject. Distilling one hour of conversation into a few sentences, I will paraphrase him as follows. The pulp and paper schools have churned out so many graduates that they have turned a specialty into a commodity. Additionally, modern process measurement and control systems allow a lower skill level (read: less expensive) employee to assure high-quality consistent production without an in-depth understanding of the basic science behind manufacturing.

He hastened to add that perhaps all this balances in the end because higher skilled technologists are necessary--on either his payroll or that of his service providers--to keep these systems operating. As he summarized conditions, he noted that hiring a graduate with all the skills necessary for any entry level or even middle level staff or management position is easy. What he laments is the difficulty in finding energetic, motivated, and focused individuals. As he says, "I can always find room in my organization for individuals with drive and energy. They do not need more than a modicum of higher education. Drive and motivation are far more important to me. Bring me individuals demonstrating these qualities on a sustained basis for they are rare."

LESSONS FROM THE PAST?

In a year when the entire administrative and support structure of the Institute of Pulp and Paper Science has radically changed, pondering how that venerable institution--then the nascent Institute of Paper Chemistry--succeeded in the bleak years of the Depression in the 1930s might be appropriate. What drove the vision of industry leaders in those dark days to support such a radical idea as a school specializing in pulp and paper science? From what depth of human resource or external stimuli did they reach to have "the vision thing" in such times? Where and how did they raise the funding? How did they find and pay qualified teachers? What attracted the students?

A few of those students are still alive today. Before they pass away, we should ask them what sparks of hope for the future of the pulp and paper industry can they remember from their youth. The pulp and paper sector was not the only practical scientific field to attract them then. Steel, electronics (as radio), automobiles, and aerospace were every bit as exciting then as now.

Listening to the faculties of pulp and paper schools and other learned people around the industry, we obviously cannot afford to lose the brain trust we have in the educational system. Nevertheless, we are at great risk of doing just that if conditions do not reverse. What remains to be seen is how the industry chooses to formulate and use this brain trust in the future.

Most major companies are barely investing two to three times the annual salary of a mid-level employee in all their efforts toward outside endeavors (schools, professional associations, etc.). In a company with 20,000 employees, this represents an investment of less than 0.015% of annual salary costs! Is this a problem of these institutions supplying the wrong services and products or a problem of the industry being too narrow-minded? It is probably a combination of both.

We certainly cannot find our way out of the current morass without attracting the best and brightest to our industry. Now is the time to undertake an action of faith in the future by supporting our schools through active involvement in their administration, recruitment, teaching, and funding. The pulp and paper industry cannot wait any longer nor expect help from any people but its own to succeed tomorrow. To succeed tomorrow, we must start now.

RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT YOU WILL LEARN

* Why the staff at pulp and paper schools is "graying"

* Financial challenges at pulp and paper schools.

* The changing educational skill sets needed by pulp and paper schools.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

* "Who will run tomorrow's mills?" by Gerard Closset and Harry T. Cullinan, Solutions!, Oct. 2001, pp. 30-33.

* "Lifetime achievement award honors IPST's Jim Ferris," by Janice Bottiglieri, Solutions!, September 2003, p. 39.

JIM THOMPSON, TAII
COPYRIGHT 2003 Paper Industry Management Association
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Title Annotation:Education
Author:THOMPSON, JIM
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:1424
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