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Transformational Shift in the Pulp & Paper Markets: Skill Gap Leaves Jobs Unfilled

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Transformational Shift in the Pulp & Paper Markets: Skill Gap Leaves Jobs Unfilled

Posted on February 2019

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​An aging workforce, evolving markets, and various cultural shifts have led to a surprising labour shortfall in the pulp and paper industry – at exactly the time when new talent is most needed.

Although many casual observers have predicted the decline of the paper industry for quite some time, insiders say that the future is as bright as they can remember. For starters, many common paper products are timeless, and will remain entirely unaffected by technological trends. Items like tissues and paper towels will always be in demand, particularly as the world’s population rises and the global middle class grows in size.

For the industry as a whole, the only major demand-based obstacle on the horizon is related to the fall of printed newspapers in the digital age – which is indeed a real phenomenon. Otherwise, the main concern around the industry is a lack of skilled workers to service the growth that is expected for other types of paper products.

The new paper-based economy

With plenty of cultural and educational focus on ‘new’ industries that are technology-based and focus on developments in the online arena, industries such as pulp and paper are finding themselves increasingly overlooked. Fewer young people consider developing the types of skills that this sector requires, favouring instead an academic-based education to become competitive in a cutting-edge industry.

But even these advanced industries rely on paper for their own operations. For every online purchase of tangible goods, a package or box must be produced for transport to the consumer. In Asia, graphic papers (apart from newsprint) are also expected to see increased demand – along with both softwood and hardwood fibre, as well as carton and containerboard. And as the world’s economy becomes ever more connected and globalised, the movement of packaged goods across borders will become even more commonplace.

The exciting innovations of the new digital marketplace have captivated investors and employees alike, and with good reason. But while the competition between Company A and Company B is yet to be decided, one thing is certain: The winner, whoever they may be, will rely on a new generation of paper-based products to deliver their goods to customers.

An analysis by McKinsey & Co. drives the point home by separating growth expectations in the paper industry by type of product as well as by region. Asia (China excepted), with all of its developing economies, shows the most widespread positive predictions for growth of any region. Tissue, graphic papers, packaging papers, hardwood and softwood pulp sub-sectors are all projected to increase in market value in the region, with newsprint (as already mentioned) the lone product type whose demand is projected to fall.

Adapting to today’s markets

Although the demand for various types of paper products will continue to rise, the industry nevertheless needs to adapt to changing expectations and the rising demand for innovation. Some of these changes relate to more cost-effective manufacturing methods, while others require switching between high-grade and medium-grade production in response to demand fluctuations.

As markets adjust to the needs of consumers, paper producers will need to manage their methods responsively. New roles for drones may be necessary to bring down costs of forest management, while computers and robots may well play a larger role on the factory floor in the coming years, as digital manufacturing promises significant improvements in cost cutting.

Nevertheless, the automation of certain processes within the field of production is more likely to augment rather than replace the roles of engineers and other workers, by increasing production capability per man-hour. In such an environment, each worker will need to be trained to operate new types of equipment, increasing the specialisation for each role.

This increase in complexity has consequences for workers themselves, who need to remain appropriately skilled in a changing industry. But their employers likewise need to do their part to train their employees – particularly their older and more experienced workers, who may be unaccustomed to today’s technology – in the roles best suited to them. Similarly, applied learning institutions such as technical colleges must also adapt their educational approaches in order to prepare their student classes for success in a field that is coming to value innovation more than ever before.

With a highly trained and knowledgeable workforce capable of adjusting its methods in response to changing market conditions, a modern paper company can operate successfully with a flexible strategy that takes into account the changing demands of its customers. At present, however, many such companies find their workers to be generally older and less-equipped to apply their talents in such ways. Their present challenge is to recruit new workers with the technical capability to operate highly efficient production centres using modern technology.

Attractive careers in paper

These skill requirements, combined with the shortage of younger employees in paper-based industries, has led to increased competition for workers. Very competitive salaries are available for those whose skills are suitable for the needs of innovative paper producers.

As production has become ever more reliant on machines for speed and efficiency, employers need to find workers comfortable with overseeing these machines and maintaining them over the course of their lifetimes.

Furthermore, entirely new production methods may become possible in the coming years, as a new generation of wood-based bioproduct applications undergo further research and development. Managing these operations on the factory floor, as well as at an executive level, will require new talent that is capable of adapting to industry-wide change as it comes.

For workers, taking advantage of the new opportunities in the paper industry requires learning the requisite skills and applying them to an industry hungry for younger talent. For employers, there is a pressing need to hire qualified workers, and then train them for expanded roles throughout their careers. By focusing on smart hiring and long-term retention, paper manufacturers can count on a new generation of trained workers to serve their needs for the coming generation.

To find out more about our services for the paper manufacturing industry, contact Connexus today.