Workforce challenges ahead for paper industry, panelists say

--By Alex Moe,   

Panelists at a paper industry discussion in Appleton were optimistic about the future of the industry, but pointed to challenges ahead -- chiefly, filling jobs.

“One of the biggest problems coming for the paper industry is the ‘silver tsunami,’” said Karyn Biasca, a professor and chair of the Paper Science and Chemical Engineering Department at UW-Stevens Point. “That is this upcoming wave of retirements of baby boomers.”

She says she’s been preparing students to backfill positions as retirees leave gaps in paper companies throughout the state.

“It could really be a crippling event for the paper industry if enough of their technical talent retired all at the same time without having some good talent to fill,” said Biasca, who spoke yesterday at the latest “Navigating the New Economy” event from and at the Paper Discovery Center.

Zack Leimkuehler, director of product and business development for Expera Specialty Solutions, says some of the company’s sites in Wisconsin could lose “40 to 50 percent” of their workers in the next five years.

“That’s a scary thing as a papermaker,” he said. “As you have that attrition, you lose technical knowledge, you lose all those years of history, all that ... knowledge that just came with that generation.”

Reps. Katrina Shankland and Dave Murphy agreed on the importance of getting younger workers interested and involved with the workforce early on.

“How do we reach kids from when they’re 12, to when they’re 19, 20?” said Shankland, D-Stevens Point. “That difference is going to be really important to getting new people into the industry.”

She points to the Fast Forward grant program as one legislative success. The program started providing training grants for employers in 2013, and Shankland says it’s been a success in central Wisconsin.

Murphy highlighted efforts to move students through the pipeline and into jobs faster. That includes both traditional universities and technical schools.

“We can improve things a certain percentage, but it’s not like anybody here has any ideas to put a lot of workers in front of you anytime soon,” the Greenville Republican said. “There’s no fix that anyone can put on this tomorrow.”

Aside from workforce concerns, transportation costs were also highlighted as a major challenge for the state’s paper manufacturers.

“Almost every country in the world allows heavier truck traffic than we do,” said Doug Osterberg, managing director at Midwest Paper Group. “And it’s simply a matter of putting another axle on the truck… It does not deteriorate the roads any more.”

“Most of us, not all of us -- depending on the type of paper -- ship trucks that are two-thirds full,” Osterberg continued. “It’s a regulation problem, and it doesn’t cost money to solve.”

Even finding workers to deliver products is a challenge, according to Jeff Walch, vice president for containerboard sales at Green Bay Packaging.

“No one wants to drive truck anymore,” he said. “I would challenge anybody to have any solution for how that problem is going to be corrected… The only solution you hear is self-driving trucks, but that’s not something that’s going to happen in the next year or two.”

Watch a Facebook Live video of the entire discussion, sponsored by the Wisconsin Paper Council and WAGET:

Listen to audio from the event here: