BUCKSPORT — In an effort to ensure a qualified, versatile work force in the face of anticipated retirements, Verso Paper Co. recently has beefed up its staff at its two mills in Maine.
For the first time in several years, the company advertised for workers at its Maine mills in Bucksport and Jay and has hired close to 200 permanent and temporary employees going into the summer. According to Verso spokesman Bill Cohen, the company has hired 20 permanent employees and 79 temporary summer employees at the mill in Bucksport and 32 permanent and 78 temporary summer employees at its Androscoggin mill in Jay.
Some of the temporary workers are college students on summer break, while others are co-op engineering students earning credits for the work experience at the mill. The extra crews in summer allow the company to work on outdoor projects that require additional employees, but Cohen said a small number of those temporary workers will stay on at the mills into the fall to become a hiring pool to replace older employees who might retire.
The hiring reflects the company’s need to hire and train new workers to replace those employees who have reached or are nearing retirement age.
“About 40 percent of our work force will reach retirement age by 2017,” Cohen said Wednesday.
Although numbers vary from mill to mill, he said, that percentage reflects the situation in the papermaking industry in Maine.
“The recession delayed some things; some folks who were going to retire put it off,” Cohen said. “But attrition seems to be coming back in line with what we projected.”
While this summer’s hiring does not necessarily signal an overall increase in the year round work force levels at the mills, and there currently are no openings at the two Maine mills, Cohen said, he expects these types of employment opportunities will continue to open up for the next several years.
According to Verso’s website, 990 people operate five papermaking machines at the mill in Jay, while 795 operate four machines in Bucksport.
The hirings fly in the face of some pronouncements that the pulp and paper industry is a dead end in Maine, Cohen said.
“This is an exciting time,” he said. “We are hiring. There will be jobs in the mills and in the woods. And as the economy goes up and down, for those people who want to get into this environment, there are opportunities.”
That said, the industry is changing and technological advancements in papermaking will place more demands on the mill workers in the future.
“The days of someone coming in here from high school and working at the same spot on the same machine for 30 years are over,” he said.
But as those workers who did that type of work retire, it represents a tremendous loss of knowledge of the papermaking process. As a way to offset those losses, Cohen said, the company has developed a program with Kennebec Valley Community College, which offers a pulp and paper program. Many of the programs are offered online so they can be available to new workers at both of the company’s mills in Maine. New employees will agree to get a pulp and paper certification, and the arrangement with the college ensures that the courses will be available to them. As the process develops, Cohen said, the company may look to other community colleges, including Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor, to develop similar relationships.
Employment at the mills will fluctuate as the company makes different improvements and adapts and adopts new technologies, Cohen said. That will demand that new employees have the background and skills in mathematics, science and papermaking to be able to adapt to those changes.
“It’s important that we have folks with the skills to keep up with technology advances in pulp and paper,” he said. “We’ll be bringing on people at a level where they have the ability to meet the demands being placed on them.”